For a rising young actress, it has become a rite of passage to star in a tony literary costume drama. Think Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma (1996) or Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice (2005). But Mia Wasikowska may have just set the land speed record for jumping into a prestige British period piece. She made her presence known on the movie radar only last year, with her unfussy performance in The Kids Are All Right and by occupying the still center of Tim Burton's overstuffed carnival ride Alice in Wonderland. Now, just 21 years old, here she is as the ''plain,'' pensive, servant-with-an-inner-fire heroine of Jane Eyre, the umpteenth screen version of Charlotte Brontë's roiling Victorian romance.
As Jane, the willful orphan who becomes a docile governess, Wasikowska has pale skin, a lovely collarbone, and a rock-steady gaze, with serious eyes that seem to look right into the soul of whomever she's talking to. This actress doesn't just send out vibes of awareness she's gorgeously grave. She makes Jane's passive, shrinking-violet moments percolate with hidden life. Wearing a series of gray dresses that resemble aprons, and with her tawny hair in an intricate bun, Wasikowska's Jane is a girl who knows her place, yet her discerning goodness and moral independence make her stand out. It's enough to get her booted from the mansion of her aunt, played with glittering snootiness by Sally Hawkins. Jane eventually lands at Thornfield Hall, where she looks after the French ward of the troubled, majestically brooding Mr. Rochester, who stares at his young charge and sees the ray of sunlight that can heal him.
As Rochester, Michael Fassbender, the forceful Irish actor from Inglourious Basterds and Hunger, looks startlingly like Daniel Day-Lewis, but from the moment he shows up in wispy muttonchop sideburns, a Byronic hero in secret agony over...we're not quite sure what, Fassbender lacks the special smolder that Day-Lewis might have brought to the role. He's a less primal, more gentlemanly Rochester than Brontë created. And that works, up to a point. Fassbender makes Rochester very sympathetic, and when he reaches out to Jane, his amorous overtures are touching. Yet I never felt her swoon in return. Their communion is sweet but rather bloodless. Maybe that's because Jane Eyre, as directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), has a few token thunderstorm-on-the-moors scenes but lacks a grand, mythological design. The movie is choppy and prosaic.
The script, by Moira Buffini, whittles down the novel, preserving the key incidents a raging midnight fire, an unwelcome proposal from Jane's second, pious benefactor (Jamie Bell) that shape our heroine. Yet the more the events pile up, the more we feel that we're watching the story of two lost souls whose love is stymied by pesky Victorian rules. The film never conveys that something larger is at work like, say, the hand of fate. And without that, there's more busyness than beauty to Brontë. B–