In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I still haven’t read the source novel yet. I’ve heard good things about it, and I expect that I may read it for another column I’m doing. For now, however, I’ll be reviewing this movie without any prior knowledge or exposure to the work of Charlotte Bronte. Oddly enough, I think this may have been a point in my favor.

Jane Eyre opens with a scene of our eponymous protagonist running across the fields of England, tears streaming down her face. The cinematography, editing and performance of our lead actress were such that I was immediately drawn into the film. Who was this girl and what was she running away from? Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long for answers.

The first act of this film is told in a non-linear fashion. The film alternates between the older Jane, having run away until being taken in by a kind family; and a younger Jane, in which we see her cruelly abusive childhood. This may sound disorienting, but the editing totally makes it work. The momentary breaks of happiness make the depressing backstory much more bearable, not only by breaking it into more manageable chunks but also by promising the audience that everything will eventually get better. Furthermore, the pacing is such that both storylines are very effectively juggled, with neither one taking predominance until the second act. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It turns out that Jane Eyre is an orphan who spent her young childhood being raised by her aunt. Unfortunately, the aunt was a self-righteous bitch and Jane’s cousin was a worthless bully. Jane fought back against the cousin’s beatings, but of course she was chided for it. Not only did no one believe it was in self-defense, but it was considered improper to hit or scratch anyone. Naturally, Jane was sent to an overly religious school that administered cruel and physical punishments for the even smallest sin (read: infraction).

In short, we’re dealing with a young woman far too strong for 19th-century England. Wikipedia tells me that this proto-feminism was a key reason for the book’s popularity, so kudos to the film-makers for getting that across loud and clear.

Eventually, Jane grows up to be Mia Wasikowska and the second act begins. At this point, the “taken in by a kind family” storyline is temporarily abandoned and we follow Jane through to the third act without interruption. For the duration, we see Jane leave the school to be a governess under the employ of Edward Rochester. To put this as spoiler-free as I can (for those who haven’t read the novel), she falls in love with Rochester, it doesn’t work out, she runs away and we’re right back where we started the film.

Mia Wasikowska is phenomenal as our lead. I’m convinced that she was born to play this role. Jane has several moments of pain and internal conflict throughout the movie and Wasikowska sells every one in a way that instantly makes the role sympathetic. Additionally, Wasikowska imbues Jane with a voice that’s prim and a face that’s kept perfectly straight, even as she’s delivering some line with devastating wit. It’s like this Jane is obeying the letter of propriety while trying to disobey the intent in whatever way she can. It’s an amazing conflict that only re-establishes this character as a very strong woman ahead of her time. What’s also commendable is that this role is not presented in any glamorous way. Every attempt was made for Jane to look as plain and unremarkable as possible, which is a rarity to find in leading lady roles nowadays, and Wasikowska was totally game for it. Amazing work.

She works opposite Michael Fassbender, who’s still one of the most underrated actors currently working. He’s been getting more recognition lately, but the guy can’t get his due fast enough. He plays Rochester as a total enigma of a man. Stand-offish, but just short of being a dick. Full of emotions, but not very good at expressing them. He’s fallen for Jane, though he doesn’t seem to completely know why.

…Wow. Putting it like that almost makes him sound like he has Asperger’s or something.

The point being that Rochester is clearly a man who’s uncomfortable with his social class. In this regard, he and Jane were made for each other. Yes, he’s something like twice her age, but it was a different time back then and it’s depicted as such. Plus, Wasikowska and Fassbender play so wonderfully off each other that the romance works in spite of the age difference.

Really, the cast is great all-around. Jamie Bell, for example, delivers a St. John Rivers who’s so earnest and sincere that it’s easy to like the man. This might sound easy enough, but doing so immediately before revealing the character as a total douchebag and making the transition work is no mean feat. Dame Judi Dench also appears as Rochester’s housekeeper, the widow Mrs. Fairfax. This character is written in such a way that pretty much any elderly actress could play her easily, but Dench brings so much heart and humor to the character by… well, by being Dame Judi Dench, to be perfectly honest.

Still, what most impressed me about the supporting cast was the child talent. Casting young children can go wrong in so many ways that I have great respect for any director who can do it well. The young Jane Eyre, for example, is played by a girl named Amelia Clarkson, who conveys her character’s pain and strength every bit as capably as her older counterpart. Jane’s ward, Adele Varens, also deserves mention. This role was played by Romy Settbon Moore, an adorable and energetic young actress who also shows a very good singing voice for her age.

The writing was sharp and the actors all delivered it like they were reciting Shakespeare (which I mean as a compliment, by the way). Visually, the movie is extraordinary. The sets, locations and costumes are all wonderfully designed and beautifully shot, even if the DoP did rely a bit too heavily on the blue filter at times. I’ll also grant that the film has several scenes that are drenched in impenetrable darkness, but I suppose that’s what you get with a film set before the electric lightbulb. Plus, it added a lot of atmosphere. The sound design even has a few neat flourishes here and there.

I know this isn’t saying much, but Jane Eyre is quite easily the best film of the year so far. It’s very well-made, the narrative is presented in an interesting fashion and the cast is very good. Hell, this movie actually made me interested in what Mia Wasikowska does next. If you’re interested in a movie with strong feminist tones and you don’t mind trading fancy visuals for decent storytelling, check this one out.