Whether on a movie screen or a high-school stage, a modicum of acting talent is commonplace - lots of performers are blessed only sparsely, and their careers hinge on whether that small blessing is augmented with heavy doses of persistence and more than a little luck. But major, exceptional talent is rare by definition, and, being rare, is easy to spot but hard to describe. Still, to see it is to realize instantly how few have it. Mia Wasikowska has it in abundance.
If you doubt that, watch her work as a troubled teen on the HBO series In Treatment, where she repaints the cliché of adolescent angst in a dazzling array of new and complex and unnerving hues. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, look at her old-soul take on the title role in Alice in Wonderland, where, even walled in by Tim Burton's flamboyant effects, she steals the film from the director and makes it her own. Or, if any lingering doubts remain, spend two hours with her in Jane Eyre. There are many good reasons why the world doesn't need yet another adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte classic. Yet they all pale before the one great reason why it does - the chance to marvel at Wasikowska's performance.
Admittedly, American director Cary Joji Fukunaga (a relative rookie who made his feature debut with Sin Nombre) does bring a fresh eye to this early Victorian material, opening up all its Gothic faucets to drench the film in night and fog. Anyone who savours shades of grey will have a feast. Also, the screenplay stutters Bronte's time frame. It opens with Jane on the rain-drenched moor, fleeing from revealed secrets and thwarted passion into the clerical sanctuary of St. John Rivers. Then, flashbacks return us to her orphaned past, suffering the cruelties of a frosty aunt and a frigid boarding school, before the narrative settles into the main action at Thornfield - her arrival as a governess and that famous first encounter with Rochester's manhood, mounted on a bewitched steed.
There, Fukunaga wastes no time trumpeting the battle between passion and repression, inter-cutting from panoramas of the moor's wild expanses to claustrophobic shots of the manor's dark interior - the leaden draperies, the wood-panelled walls and, of course, that locked attic, where the Id goes thump in the night. On the lighter side, Judi Dench appears as Mrs. Fairfax the loyal housekeeper, employed on this outing as occasional comic relief amid all the Gothic grayness. Typically, though, it's the casting of Rochester - Orson Welles, George C. Scott and William Hurt have each had a turn - that makes or breaks any rendition of Jane Eyre. But this isn't typical.
In fact, in my perhaps conventional view, Michael Fassbender seems miscast here, simply because he can't escape his good looks. Physically, there's too much Byron in his Byronic hero and not enough ugly menace, not nearly enough to rescue his candid remark to Jane - "You are not pretty any more than I am handsome" - from the clutches of false modesty. In Bronte's hands, Rochester is a bad boy whose goodness is stymied - she was careful to put plenty of sins in his past and crags on his countenance. But in Fassbender's soft paws, the male half of the love story loses most of its raw danger.
No matter. The female half is like nothing seen in any previous adaptation. First, Wasikowska plays Jane at her correct age - a mere 19. More important, she embodies that passion/repression battle in her body language, in her every gesture and nuance - open and honest one moment, clenched and timid the next, impelled by her nature to be defiant, compelled by society to be compliant. Watch her hint at the girl's sexual awakening, her glance darting up at a painted nude in a gilded frame. And especially watch the scene where Rochester declares his love for Jane, and Wasikowska has her weep from the sheer intensity of the exchange but somehow contrives to make the tears themselves changeable, morphing from a river of confusion to a fount of joy. Remarkable.
What's more remarkable, she does this too: Given the autobiographical threads in the novel, Wasikowska seems to be playing not just Jane Eyre but also Charlotte Bronte, that other woman who struggled to find a balance between the prototypical feminist and the eminent Victorian. Yes, thanks to the actor, we actually catch a distinct glimpse of the creator within her creation. But surely that's fitting - two such rare talents deserve each other.
- Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
- Written by Moira Buffini
- Starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender
- Classification: PG