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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Governess has eyes for boss in Jane Eyre
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Wooing as chess match
Wooing as chess match

There are good reasons Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester shouldn't be together. He is her employer. He's hard to get along with. Most importantly...

Well, I'll refrain from disclosing that, in case you've never read either Jane Eyre or The Madwoman in the Attic, the seminal book of feminist literary criticism whose name was inspired by Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel. It's a key plot point, and director Cary Fukunaga develops it masterfully, with elements we recognize from suspense cinema: half-lit rooms, muffled bumps and screams, a terrified, wide-eyed heroine.

Suspense is just one component of this lovely, absorbing film. It's mainly a very well-acted romance, the sort of buttoned-up Victorian love story that gets moviegoers sighing happily, as they did at a recent Madison promotional screening. I guess we can thank both 19th-century mores and the tightly controlled storytelling (Tamara Drewe scenarist Moira Buffini wrote the screenplay) for the fact that Jane and Rochester scarcely touch other as their ardor grows. This is wooing as conversational chess match. They calmly spar, quip and tease, and each utterance seems to have a dozen different meanings.

Jane is played by Mia Wasikowska, who was Alice in last year's blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. Wasikowska is wonderful - primly beautiful in the light cast by the candles and cozy fires of Rochester's manor. Her Jane is smart, and funny when she wants to be. Mostly she is anguished and guarded, owing to a particularly rotten childhood, seen in flashbacks. An orphan, young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) is banished by her wealthy, monstrous aunt (Sally Hawkins) to a very strict school, where bright girls are punished by being made to stand on the pedestal of infamy. Trust me, it's nowhere you want to be.

When she finishes school, Jane begins working at the Rochester home, which is overseen by the anxious housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). This is another of those appealing Dench roles in which she's somehow warm and cool at the same time. Jane is governess to Rochester's ward (Romy Settbon Moore), a little French girl who is sweet and amiable but sings and dances poorly. "How very French," says Mrs. Fairfax, with raised eyebrows, after a performance.

Rochester, who travels and isn't seen much around the house, is played by Michael Fassbender, who was so creepy and memorable as the mother's boyfriend in Fish Tank. Rochester is an enigma. He's magnetically handsome, but he's given to weird behavior and has a problem with honesty.

When he finally makes his big move on Jane, he puts her in an impossible situation, one that has much to do with the awkward position of Victorian governesses. Jane is well bred and well educated, and as a governess she's not quite a lowly servant. But she's definitely not the social equal of Rochester and the sneering freaks of the gentry he runs around with.

"All governesses have a tale of woe," he says to her. "What's yours?"

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