Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska star in "Jane Eyre." (Laurie Sparham / Focus Features )
The book is called "Jane Eyre" but when it comes to its numerous movie versions, whether it's Orson Welles in 1944 or Michael Fassbender right now, the actor playing Edward Rochester often ends up with the lion's share of the attention.
That's because the brooding master of Thornfield in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel is one of literature's archetypal romantic heroes, a complex and troubled individual who is sensitive, poetic and, as Lady Caroline Lamb famously said of Lord Byron, "mad, bad and dangerous to know."
A part like that is catnip for performers who can play the rogue male, and Fassbender swallows it whole. He's a German-born Irish actor who is about to break big with roles in the next X-Men movie, a Steven Soderbergh thriller and "Prometheus," Ridley Scott's "Alien" prequel. Fassbender energizes not just his scenes with Mia Wasikowska's accomplished but inevitably more pulled-back Jane but this entire film.
Bronte's romantic novel of a young governess engaged in a classic struggle for equality and independence has, as noted, been filmed a lot: One count lists 18 theatrical feature versions plus nine telefilms. But it's not always had a director with as much of a flair for the five-alarm-fire dramatics of its plot as Cary Joji Fukunaga.
As his first film, the Sundance success "Sin Nombre," demonstrated, Fukunaga is an intense, visceral filmmaker with a love for melodramatic situations. His no-holds-barred style is more successful here than in his debut because the necessity of working within the boundaries of Bronte's narrative provides just the right amount of structure to showcase his talents.
One of the shrewd choices Fukunaga has made is to emphasize the natural gothic aspects of the story. Thornfield, where much of the action takes place, is an old dark house after all, and expert cinematographer Adriano Goldman beautifully captures both the building's candle-lit spookiness and the desolate beauty of the surrounding Derbyshire countryside.
Fukunaga has also invested heavily in the film's physical details, working with his production team, including production designer Will Hughes-Jones, art director Karl Probert, set decorator Tina Jones and costume designer Michael O'Connor to create a period world where even the badminton equipment looks fearsomely authentic.
Similar care has also gone into casting, with equally good results, including the impeccable Judi Dench as redoubtable Thornfield housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, Jamie Bell as the obtuse cleric St. John Rivers, and Sally Hawkins of "Happy-Go-Lucky" smartly cast against type as Jane's awful aunt, Mrs. Reed.
Wasikowska, Tim Burton's Alice and the daughter in "The Kids Are All Right," looks exactly right as a heroine the author famously described as "as plain and small as myself." Wasikowska acquits herself well here, but without a lot of access to the book's florid recounting of her rich interior life her performance is of necessity restricted to the narrow view the world has of her. And that, especially for people not well-acquainted with the book, does hamstring the proceedings somewhat.
Because screenwriter Moira Buffini ("Tamara Drewe") has shrewdly chosen to tell the story not chronologically, as the novel does, but through flashback, it is Wasikowska's adult Jane whose acquaintance we make first.
Clearly a determined young woman, if a distraught one, Jane is shown fleeing a house in what we soon see is complete despair. A woman with no resources in the middle of nowhere, she lands, drenched and exhausted, at the doorstep of a home occupied by two sisters and their minister brother St. John Rivers. They take her in and gradually the film reveals what brought her to this state.
It starts with a dreadful childhood, raised by that aunt who has no use for her followed by an even bleaker period in a charity school run by people who delight in mistreating children. A passionate truth-teller whose goal is to experience life as anyone's equal, Jane hopes for the best when she takes a job as a governess for a wealthy man's young French ward.
That man would be Edward Rochester, and from the moment he enters the film on his famously stumbling horse, things take a turn for the better. If the depiction of Jane's younger years veers dangerously close to hysteria, the film gains its footing as Rochester's horse loses his.
As convincingly played by Fassbender, best known so far for roles in British indies "Hunger" and "Fishtank," Rochester is mercurial, bad-tempered and very sure of himself. And yet, almost as much against his will as against her own, he finds himself appreciating the qualities in Jane that others have ignored or reviled.
Someone who wants distraction from "the mire of my thoughts," Rochester is visibly energized by the spirited give and take conversations he has with Jane. With Fassbender's charisma igniting his costar as well as himself, these sparring interchanges, both captivating and entertaining, are where this "Jane Eyre" finally catches fire.