Jane Eyre, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, may very well be the best; there are many of the things, and I have not seen enough of them to have the authority to guess. Certainly, it is more faithful to the novel as well as a more consummate piece of filmmaking than the 1943 version; it does, however, replace Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, which is probably to some people's tastes, but I know that for myself, "brooding hero of a Victorian potboiler" is the very first thing I think of when I look at Orson Welles.
Regardless, the new Jane Eyre is an excellent achievement - surely, the best adaptation of a 19th Century novel, with all the grandiose production design and fussy costumes thereby implied, since Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice all the way back in 2005, if not longer. It is an excellently faithful adaptation of the parts of Charlotte Brontë's novel that it doesn't dump altogether, somewhere north of half of it; for the non-English majors in the audience, the story is that a young orphan, Jane Eyre (Wasikowska, with Amelia Clarkson doing the honors for Jane's childhood) is raised by her emotionally abusive aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), and eventually packed off to a savage school for troublesome young ladies, where she learns enough that when she has come of age, she has the skills and fortitude to seek employment as governess at Thornfield Hall out in the countryside. There, she finds the first friend of her sad life in the form of housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), and meets the achingly handsome but mysterious Edward Rochester (Fassbender), the protector of her student, a plain French girl named Adèle (Romy Settbon Moore). The mutual attraction between Jane and Rochester is already in danger thanks to its considerable unconventionality, but there is also A Secret in Thornfield Hall, and it is anyway plainly the case that this is not the sort of story that ends with a blithe, untroubled triumph for everybody we like.
The problem with Jane Eyre has always been that Jane and Rochester are thrown together by narrative contrivance rather than by inevitability - Charlotte's sister Emily did a far better job of presenting a convincing relationship between two people who just don't make any sense together with her Wuthering Heights. The new film, with its casting of the sullen, haunted Fassbender and the tentative and pensive Wasikowska, does not exactly fix this issue, but Fukunaga pushes through hard enough that it comes as close to working as I imagine it's prone to. More importantly, there's so much that works so damn well in this version that what could in another context be a film-breaking flaw mostly doesn't even register.
What works, predominately, is the look of the thing. This is one of the most extraordinarily physical costume dramas of recent vintage, establishing a singularly immersive version of mid-19th Century England that you can almost feel and smell: and if it were not enough that production designer Will Hughes-Jones and costumer designer Michael O'Connor did such fine work creating an unusually persuasive reality for the story to unfold in, their collaboration with each other and with cinematographer Adriano Goldman is choreographed with a precision that most costume dramas, frankly, don't see fit to bother with - not when it's easy enough to put together splashy sets that look impressive and be done with it. One of the most characteristic things about Jane Eyre is that everything about it, visually, is driven towards a uniform greyness, which is much better in the execution than I've just made it sound. The drabness of the look marries nicely with the romantic leads' emotional constipation; it adds to the omnipresent sense of damp seeping from the moors. For it's the moors, of course, in the best Brontë fashion, where this all takes place.
That's the other great thing about Jane Eyre's visuals: its thick, moody atmosphere. It's a sign of quiet genius that Fukunaga and company remembered what most adapters of Gothic romance do not, which is that Gothic anything has a thick streak of horror in it, and some of the best parts of the movie, especially in the first half, are heavy with the iconography of horror pictures - those moors are deluged with more coruscating fog than you'd ever find in even the most opulent Universal horror film of the '30s or '40s. Parts of it are legitimately creepy, which is something that has not to my knowledge been true of any Brontë film prior to this.
Jane Eyre looks the part enough that I would, honestly, give it a pass just on the visuals; but the outstanding cast (Simon McBurney and Jamie Bell are also hiding in there, the latter in a role that would have been much bigger if the filmmakers had included the bits of the book that nobody ever much cares about) make sure that it has some good humanity underneath all of the period gloom. Wasikowska and Fassbender might not ever quite sell their mutual love, but that is the worst thing I could say about either of them - Wasikowsa, in particular, has never been this good in anything else in her short but already gratifying career, maintaining a uniform hunted-animal look atop a number of emotional registers. Even better than the leads is Judi Dench, who is the only member of the cast that delivers the arch, old-fashioned dialogue without it feeling stagey, suggesting that she does, in fact, talk that way all the time and not just on camera (and hell, she very well might do just that; how do I know what she gets up to?). It's a pleasing reminder of how charming and endlessly watchable she can be when she's not actively hunting for an Oscar.
Really, the only substantive complaint I have about all this is that Buffini's otherwise rock-solid script goes all to pieces when she tries to condense a third or so of the book into the last 20 minutes of the film; and there are the odd missteps here and there (Dario Marianelli's disappointingly thin score; Fukunaga and Buffini's uncertainty of how far to take the Dramatic Reveal of the Dark Secret; the pointlessly coy opening flash-forward) that don't really damage the ;movie but don't do it much good. It is, overall, a period literary adaptation that gives a good name to a frequently irritating genre: beautiful to look at, very well performed, and dazzlingly entertaining.