Charlotte Brontë’s most famous literary effort has been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions over the years, with varying degrees of success. The most striking Rochesters have included Orson Welles and Timothy Dalton, while Joan Fontaine and our own Sorcha Cusack have both delivered memorable performances in the title role. The latest director to tackle the classic gothic tale is Cary Fukunaga (the cinematographer who made his directorial debut in 2009 with the critically acclaimed drama, Sin Nombre) and it’s a sterling piece of work.
It’s never easy to squeeze such a multi-layered story into a two-hour feature (Dalton’s BBC production had the luxury of a five-hour running time) but a combination of Moira Buffini’s deft screenplay, Fukunaga’s eye for the landscape, and a raft of strong performances compensate for the inevitable shortfalls.
The movie adopts a non-linear approach, beginning with a grown-up Jane (Wasikowska) staggering around the Yorkshire Moors before she knocks on the door of Jamie Bell’s benevolent churchman. From here the flashback kicks in and we see young Jane (a splendid Amelia Clarkson) experiencing a bleak childhood, first at the hands of an unloving guardian (Sally Hawkins), and later among the unforgiving teachers at Lowood school.
Naturally, Jane’s story gathers momentum when she takes up the position of governess at Thornfield, where she meets housekeeper Judi Dench (typically excellent) and, in one of the great literary encounters, inadvertently knocks her patron, the mysterious Mr Rochester (Fassbender), off his horse. The growing relationship between the demure but feisty Jane and the bluff but sensitive Rochester is expertly handled, and the director never loses sight of the gothic chill that permeates Brontë’s Yorkshire milieu.