After bringing the requisite wide-eyed wonder to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, starlet Mia Wasikowska chooses her sightline very carefully as the prim and proper Jane Eyre. It's her presence that sets this adaptation apart from so many others, but this has as much to do with her china doll look as her skilled acting.
As in Charlotte Bronte's novel, she is startlingly young and appears more so in scenes with a creasy-faced Michael Fassbender playing Mr Rochester. That gives the film a definite edge, though anyone familiar with director Cary Fukunaga's kinetic social drama Sin Nombre may feel it sticks too closely to established rules of period drama.
Jane is first seen in childhood played by Amelia Clarkson, who is spirited and gracious in spite of the callousness shown to her, first by her aunt (Sally Hawkins cast against type), then at the orphanage where she is groomed for life as a governess. This chapter sets the foundation for the imposing character that Jane becomes when she is finally despatched to the misty Thornfield estate.
But the beauty of Wasikowska's performance is that she manages to exude that air of authority whilst seeming childishly awkward in her own skin - especially around Mr Rochester. Their iconic first meeting sees him thrown from his horse to her feet, hinting at things to come.
The visible age difference creates a deeper sense of foreboding, which seems apt against a gothic backdrop, but it can make Rochester seem too predatory at times. Fassbender has a natural, magnetic allure that is doubled as Rochester deliberately aims to make Jane blush, flirting with her and making her sit up straighter. But there's a desperation about him too, almost like a vampire threatening to bleed her dry in hopes that her essence might cleanse his soul.
Early on, she looks more like his victim than his saviour. It's not until later, when Jane steels herself for tough choices and Rochester is made to bow to long-buried demons that their coupling seems like a good idea. Still, the chemistry isn't quite right between the leads, regardless of their individual brilliance.
A stolen kiss beneath a tree provides the standout image of the film, but tellingly, it's shot from a distance. It's also one of few times that Fukunaga allows the camera to move, in stark contrast to the handheld aesthetic of his debut feature. He mostly keeps with tradition here, using static frames to echo the stuffiness of formal surroundings, and yet there isn't the eeriness and claustrophobia that rattles Jane when things start going bump in the night at Thornfield.
Fortunately, Judi Dench is on hand as the keeper of the house (and of her master's secrets) to convey that sense of impending doom. She brings warmth and humour too, flaring her nostrils at the sight of any frolicking, because she fears Jane will get hurt. Of course, it's a bittersweet destiny that awaits the couple, but it could have been lip-smacking if the actors were ideally matched.