The movie opens on upon an early morning, when we see Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) discreetly leave Thornfield Hall and fleeing across the fields. We see her travel quite a long distance on foot for many miles. She is clearly distraught, and at one point falls down and curls into a circle, sobbing. Rain begins to fall, and a storm comes. Exhausted and close to death, Jane makes her way to an isolated cottage in the middle of the moors, and collapses at its doorstep. We see a man coming up to the doorsteps where he sees Jane, and carries her into the house.
Inside the house, two young women hurry forward in surprise at the sight of Jane in the man’s arms. They warm her and give her something to drink, and as they ask her what her name is, Jane’s vision blurs and she begins to have a flashback of her traumatic childhood.
8-year-old Jane (Amelia Clarkson) is reading quietly behind some curtains, as her cousin John looks for her while holding a stick, saying “Where are you, rat?” She remains silent, but suddenly John draws the curtain back. He taunts her for a bit, and then seizes the book from her hands, and uses it to slam her head into the wall. She stares up at him while blood drips from the side of her head, and then flies at him in rage. The servants separate the two, and her aunt Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins) comes down and orders the servants to lock Jane up in the Red Room. Inside the room, Jane cries. Suddenly, a noise issues from the fireplace, and a somewhat supernatural-looking cloud of ash comes sweeping out of its grate. Jane screams and pounds on the door until she knocks herself out, fainting on the carpet.
Jane then is forced to bear a lecture by Mr. Brocklehurst, a clergyman who tells her that she is deceitful and wicked. After he leaves, Jane turns on Mrs. Reed, telling her that she is the one who is hateful and deceitful. Mrs. Reed tells her to get out, and sends Jane off to Mr. Brocklehurst’s school.
Back in the present day, the man who took Jane in is revealed to be a clergyman named St. John (Jamie Bell), who lives with his two sisters Diana (Holliday Grainger) and Mary (Tamzin Merchant). He questions Jane about her past, and she tells him that her name is Jane Elliott, and they talk about her education. He asks if it taught her anything, and it flashes back to the image of a rod coming down on Jane’s back.
At Lowood school, young Jane is in class, and makes eye contact with a friendly girl, Helen Burns (Freya Parks). Suddenly the severe teacher reprimands Helen and orders her to come up to the class, and is preparing to whip her when Mr. Brocklehurst and a few others come in. Mr. Brocklehurst tells the teacher to commence whipping, as it is for Helen’s own good. Jane is grief-stricken by the sight of Helen being hit over and over again, and drops her slate, attracting the attention of Mr. Brocklehurst, who orders her to stand on a chair all day in shame. Helen sneaks her a loaf of bread, and the two become friends. Eventually, Helen becomes ill, and Jane sneaks into Helen’s sickbed. Helen tells Jane that she’s going home to God, but that Jane has a passion for living and will continue doing so. The two fall asleep, and in the morning, Jane is carried away crying aloud at the sight of Helen, who has died during the night.
In present-day, Mary finds Jane sketching, and much impressed, shows St. John a severe-looking sketch that she has done of him. Jane then thinks about of the time that passed between Lowood and now.
At Lowood, a grown-up 18-year-old Jane, not much younger than the present-day Jane, gives her farewell to the other Lowood inmates and travels by coach to Thornfield, where she will be working as a governess. There she is met by Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), whose warm and gracious welcome is a clearly a stark contrast to the abuse that Jane has encountered all her life. Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that the owner of the house is Mr. Rochester, who visits infrequently, and that she is to teach his ward, a little French girl named Adele. She shows Jane to her room.
In the morning, Jane meets her pupil Adele, who gives a dance for her, prompting Mrs. Fairfax to remark, “how very French”. We are then shown Jane and Adele interacting. Jane reads a folk tale about a beast to Adele, and Adele tells her that she has heard that a woman walks through the walls of Thornfield at night.
Though relieved with her situation, Jane is clearly restless with the quiet isolation of Thornfield, and tells Mrs. Fairfax that she wished that a woman might have as much action as a man in her life. Mrs. Fairfax kindly advises her to take a walk to clear her mind, and gives her some letters to mail.
Jane obliges, and is walking through the woods when a black horse comes thundering down the road and is startled by Jane, falling down and injuring its rider. Jane assists the rider and continues on her way. When she comes back, Mrs. Fairfax tells her that Mr. Rochester has come, and has sprained his ankle, making Jane realize that he is the rider she encountered.
Jane enters into a darkly lit room where Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) sits with Adele by his side, examining several of Jane’s drawings. He is clearly an abrupt man, telling her as she enters that although Adele is not a bright child, she has improved. He commands her to tell him her “tale of woe”, and though she denies she has one, some cross-examination reveals her past. After some further quick conversation in which she easily keeps up with his wit, Mr. Rochester dismisses her.
Mr. Rochester is shown to be a restless man with dark mood swings, as he spends most of his time switching physical activities, as Jane continues to tend to Adele. In the evening, Mr. Rochester orders Jane to talk to him again, and after some more conversation, in which he is clearly intrigued by Jane’s answers, he tells her that he can see certain possibilities and the qualities of bird yearning to take flight in her, which moves her. He again dismisses her.
In the night, Jane hears a noise, and goes outside her bedchamber to inspect. She is led to Mr. Rochester’s bedchamber, and enters to see an enormous fire consuming the curtains around a still-sleeping Rochester. She wakes him, and together they purge the fire. He orders her to keep still as he leaves. When Rochester returns, he thanks Jane for saving his life, telling her that “I knew when I first saw you that you would do me good”. There is a clear tension between them as he holds her hands, until she tells him that she is cold and must leave, prompting him to release her. She returns to her bedroom and contemplates, clearly a bit agitated but happy.
Later, Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that Mr. Rochester has departed after breakfast, causing Jane to become somewhat depressed and return to her old state of restlessness. After a few weeks, a breathless Mrs. Fairfax informs Jane that Mr. Rochester is returning with a large party, including the beautiful and rich Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots). The house bustles for their arrival, and when the guests come, Jane is told that Mr. Rochester wishes her to be present. She sits uncomfortably in the drawing room , causing Blanche Ingram to bring up the topic of governesses in an abusive way. When Blanche begins to sing at the piano with Mr. Rochester at her side, Jane quietly leaves, distraught. Mr. Rochester follows her, asking her why she did not speak to him. He questions her for a bit, until Mrs. Fairfax interrupts them to say that another guest, Richard Mason, has arrived from the West Indies. Clearly troubled by the news, Rochester leaves to welcome Mason (Harry Lloyd).
In the night, Jane hears a dreadful scream. All the guests are roused, and Rochester arrives to soothe their worries, and tells Jane discreetly to come with him. He leads her to a room in the attic where Mason is shown to be lying with an enormous wound in his neck that is bleeding profusely. Rochester tells Jane to tend to his wound while he fetches the doctor, and while he is gone, Jane hears noises that continue to emanate from a carpeted wall in the room. She feels a breeze from within. Rochester returns with the doctor, and they tend to Mason and quickly send him off in the dawn.
Rochester dodges Jane’s questions about what happened, and tells her that he has been haunted by a grave error throughout his life. He then tells her that he wishes to marry someone, and whether he is justified in “overleaping an obstacle of custom” in order to obtain her. Thinking that he is talking about Blanche Ingram, Jane tells him that he should do so if it is right. He talks intimately to her, still speaking ambiguously as he places a flower in her hair. Uneasy, Jane runs off, but is shown to be happy from their encounter.
Later, Jane receives a notice that her cousin John has committed suicide, and that her aunt Mrs. Reed has had a heart failure and wishes to see her before she dies. She leaves immediately, and sees her aunt for the first time in years. Mrs. Reed confesses to Jane that an uncle from Jane’s other side of the family had contacted her, wishing to secure Jane as his niece and heir. Mrs. Reed had lied to him, saying that Jane had died at Lowell, and sent him away. She now tells Jane out of guilt, who forgives her gently and leaves. Jane writes to her uncle, telling him that she is still alive and well, and wishes to meet him.
Jane returns to Thornfield, where she encounters Rochester sitting on a stone wall. He greets her cheerfully, and she tells him that she is glad to be back. Later, confronting the fear that he will inevitably marry Blanche Ingram, she tells Rochester that she is prepared to give up her position and then walks away. Rochester follows her into a field, asking her why she wants to leave. Jane breaks down, telling Rochester that she cannot bear to “become nothing” to him, and that she has a soul as much as he does, and a spirit that addresses him as an equal. Rochester then tells a disbelieving Jane that she is the one he wishes to marry. He calls Blanche Ingram an unfeeling machine, and tells Jane that she is his likeness, and his true bride. Finally, she accepts, and they kiss for the first time.
A storm comes, and holding hands, they run back to the house. Inside the house they embrace and kiss, while a horrified and bewildered Mrs. Fairfax looks on from above from the banister. Rochester bids her good night, and Jane smiles at the old lady and runs away.
When she learns of their engagement, Mrs. Fairfax advises Jane to be cautious and keep Rochester at a distance. Nevertheless, we are shown Jane and Rochester becoming closer during the days to the wedding as they spend time together and are often playful around each other.
The day of their wedding arrives, and Mr. Rochester takes Jane and walks hastily to the church. During the marriage ceremony, he is visibly impatient and agitated. A man arrives, proclaiming the existence of an obstacle to their marriage. Rochester attempts to ignore him. The man declares that he has proof that Rochester has been previously married, and Richard Mason appears. At the sight of him, Rochester attacks him, and after being separated, tells the men that Jane knew nothing. He leads them all back to Thornfield, where he shouts at all the waiting servants to go away, and leads them up to the room behind the carpeted wall.
Inside, he shows everyone his wife Bertha Mason, a beautiful and wild-looking woman who is clearly insane. She leans her head against Rochester, spitting at Jane. Suddenly, she lashes out at Rochester. While they attempt to restrain her, Jane runs away to her room, where she tears off her wedding dress and waits in agony.
Finally, she leaves her room to encounter a distraught and contrite Rochester, who upon seeing her feel faint, carries her off to a room. He explains to her that he was married as a young and inexperienced youth to Bertha in an arranged marriage, and lived through years of hell as she descended into insanity and violence. He then begs Jane to stay with him, telling her that they can be together and no one would care. She tells him, “I would”. An emotional and intense scene ensues as he holds her, pleading in tears for her to stay. In tears herself, Jane holds Rochester and fights the will to stay with him until she abruptly turns and leaves.
We are then shown a repeat of the opening scene of Jane fleeing Thornfield and making her way, as Rochester discovers that she has ran away.
Back in the present day, Jane is teaching in a village school, a job offered to her by St. John. St. John arrives to see how she is doing, and talks to her. During the night, she is sleeping in a chair in her cottage when she is awoken by a loud banging on the door. She opens to find a fierce-looking Rochester. They embrace and kiss, until Jane is suddenly returned to reality to find St. John, not Rochester, at the door.
St. John sits down and tells her that he knows that her name is really Jane Eyre (he saw her name on one of her drawings), and that a lawyer named Mr. Briggs has contacted him, in the hopes of finding Jane Eyre. St. John relays the lawyer’s message, which is that her long-lost uncle has died and left her all of his property, making her rich. Jane is struck speechless, amusing St. John. Finally, she struggles to her senses and tells St. John that she wishes to divide the money between herself, him, and his sisters for having taken her in, and exchange they will accept her as a surrogate sister.
Diana and Mary return from their positions as governesses, and there is shown to be a bit of awkwardness between Jane and St. John. One night he tells Jane that he intends to go to India in a few weeks as a missionary, and wants her to come as his wife, because God intended her to. He leaves Jane to ponder this in silence. The next day, they meet each other on the road. Jane tells St. John that she can go to India to help his work, but she cannot marry him because it would kill her. St. John insists that there is no other way, and disparages her words for being “unfeminine and untrue”. He tells that he knows that she still clings to an immoral passion for someone else, and orders her to say his name. Suddenly, she hears a faint “Jane” in the wind, and starts walking blindly towards it, answering.
She travels to Thornfield, and runs eagerly down the path to it, and stops suddenly in shock. The house has been half-burnt down. She walks among the wreckage, and we see another figure in the background. It is Mrs. Fairfax. She tells Jane that Mr. Rochester’s wife finally succeeded in burning the house to the ground, and committed suicide by jumping off the roof. Mr. Rochester was badly injured. She begins to cry, telling Jane that she could have gone to her for help. They embrace, and Jane asks her where Mr. Rochester is.
Jane walks a long away, until she approaches a bench underneath some trees, where she sees Mr. Rochester. He is much changed, having grown a long beard. He is holding a cane, and he is now blind. He asks who is there. Jane says nothing, but approaches him silently and touches his hand. Slowly, he feels her hand, and then her face, until he realizes it is her. Jane tells him that she has returned, and he slowly stands up. Jane leans him and kisses him gently, and Rochester whispers that he must be dreaming. Jane tells him “awaken, then”, as he finally holds her, and she leans her head against his chest and closes her eyes as they are reunited. The screen turns to black.
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