I’ve read Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel six or seven times, and I’ve seen at least that many of the nearly thirty film and television adaptations. So, the fact that the new version of Jane Eyre took me by surprise … well, that took me by surprise.

The film’s screenplay by Moira Buffini makes an interesting leap by starting the movie toward the end of Jane’s story. Our first glimpse of the heroine is her escape from Thornfield, her flight across the moors and her collapse on the doorstep of a humble clergyman and his sisters. It struck me that this was a clever move on Buffini’s part for multiple reasons. It helped the audience immediately connect and relate to the adult Jane. (The book begins when Jane is just ten years old, and there are ten whole chapters before she reaches adulthood.) It set up an intriguing mystery for any audience members new to the story. From what — or whom — was this desperate young woman running away? And, for those of us sitting smugly thinking we’d “been there, done that,” it fired an early warning shot: this Jane would not be business as usual. I literally sat up straighter in my seat and looked forward to more unexpected creative choices.

Much of what makes this new movie so fresh is itself a rather unexpected choice: the director. At 33, Cary Joji Fukunaga has only one previous feature under his belt, an intensely violent immigration drama titled Sin Nombre, or in English Nameless. Critics admired the debut and it was honored at Sundance and other festivals.

Although he was clearly recognized by the industry as a gifted up-and-coming director, Fukunaga’s resume would not make him an obvious choice for a literate period piece like Jane Eyre. He seems, however, to have captured the very essence of the book, peeling back layers of characters and narrative that may leave some die-hard Brontë fans feeling a bit bereft. But he succeeds in crafting a multifaceted composite of protofeminist drama, Gothic romance, and morality play. Most of all, the movie is a moody, almost metaphysical character study into the heart and soul of one Miss Eyre.

The movie runs two hours and, other than a brief flashback to her painfully pathetic childhood, grownup Jane is onscreen virtually every minute. The story is such an intimate first-person portrait that the success of any interpretation hinges on its leading lady. In some earlier versions, older actresses have been cast for perhaps this very reason. Here, an aptly youthful Mia Wasikowska is simply remarkable in the title role.

Wasikowska is very young and oddly beautiful, although significant pains have been taken to make her as bland and mousy as possible. She conveys a broad range of simmering emotion in even the most hushed, candlelit scenes. With her intense stillness and soulful eyes, she invites us in and we become intimately engaged in her story: an orphaned and unwanted child who makes her way as a governess but catches the eye and heart of her mysterious master. As we get to know her better, observing not only her moral fiber but also her quick wit and courage, she grows more and more attractive. She becomes downright luminous when she falls in love with Mr. Rochester.

Michael Fassbinder as Rochester is suitably surly and enigmatic, but a little too attractive for Brontë’s Byronic hero. She wrote, “He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful …” This is not an accurate description of Fassbinder, but we can easily overlook it. Handsome face aside, he is moody and capricious, toying a bit too cruelly with the emotions of the governess before confessing his love for her.

Wasikowska and Fassbinder are believable as lovers; in fact, there is more urgency and sheer heat in their scenes together than you’ll find in many a BBC version. However, this is Jane Eyre, not a contemporary chick flick, and it will be a while before they are accorded a happy — if sober — ending. An insurmountable impediment is thrown in their path and Jane must run from her heart, her home and her own burgeoning passions.

The supporting cast is excellent. While the movie clearly belongs to Wasikowska, she is surrounded by an ensemble of first-rate character actors. Sally Hawkins breaks her own habit of playing Happy Go Lucky roles and seems to relish depicting Jane’s cruel Aunt Reed. Jamie Bell is earnest as St. John Rivers, Jane’s would-be suitor but one who pales in comparison to Rochester. Simon McBurney is sadistic and cruel as the headmaster of the charity school Lowood. Imogen Poots is shallow and vain as the beauteous Miss Ingram, while Valentina Cervi’s Bertha Mason is a wild-eyed and lustful woman scorned. The children hold their own as well. Romy Settbon Moore is “very French” as Rochester’s ward, Adele. Diminutive Amelia Clarkson is poignant as young Jane, and Freya Parks is saintly as doomed schoolmate Helen.

The crème de la crème of the supporting cast is, of course, Dame Judi Dench as Rochester’s housekeeper (“and distant relation”), Mrs. Fairfax. Simultaneously self-important and self-deprecating, she is at first a comfortable companion for Jane. In keeping with her station and the times, she judges Jane harshly when she sees the attraction Rochester has for the young governess. But in a sweet added scene, she scolds Jane for running away and not applying to her for help. “I have some money put away,” she admits. By this point, however, Jane no longer needs support. She has inherited her own small fortune and will soon reclaim her love.

From the stellar cast and fine-tuned screenplay to the flawless costumes, sets, sound and lighting, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is a deeply satisfying film, and one of the best I’ve seen so far this year.

This raises the question … why does Jane Eyre hold up so well?

Jane Eyre is without a doubt the grand dame of gothic novels — influencing everything from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and countless Harlequin Romances to the current Twilight series. The archetypal characters — ardent if inexperienced heroine, mysterious hero with a guilty secret, the proverbial madwoman in the attic — were never so perfectly drawn. It satisfies on so many levels and across so many genres of entertainment. And to top it off, it is gorgeously written.

Jane Eyre is also celebrated as one of the earliest feminist novels, commenting not only on the plight of working women, but on additional societal ills, such as religious hypocrisy and socioeconomic class division. The ghastly scenes at Lowood School give Mr. Charles Dickens a run for his money.

But I think it’s more basic than that. This year, thousands of high school English classes will assign Jane Eyre (and tens of thousands of high school students will complain about it). But then, something magical will happen. Young women accustomed to the sarcastic chatty prose of the Gossip Girl series will get swept up in Brontë’s luxurious language. They will be enthralled by Jane’s story, her strength and determination. She is the thinking girl’s heroine, and they will see themselves in her. Because of Jane, generations of young women have been — and will continue to be — reassured that even if they are “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” they can still make a happy ending if they are true to themselves.

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