MOVIE REVIEW: Mia Wasikowska shines as empowered 'Jane Eyre'

Jane Eyre (PG-13)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

With close to three dozen previous feature, short and TV incarnations it might be safe to surmise that it would be difficult to put any kind of new spin on Charlotte Bronte's iconic novel "Jane Eyre."

Austere to the point of brittle, director Cary Fukunaga's production is steeped in gothic dreariness and steadfastly avoids the flowery British period piece trappings most all other versions have wallowed in. In a manner similar to Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," Fukunaga keeps the interiors (and emotions) dark and dimly lit and the resulting dread is palpable.

The 115-minute final cut might not please some Eyre purists, but for regular viewers who can take only so much mope it is more than enough. Judiciously jettisoning some of the less important religious subtext and brilliantly condensing flashback passages of Jane as a young girl, screenwriter Moira Buffini ("Tamara Drewe") wisely wrote a movie and not just a condensed version of the book. Buffini and film editor Melanie Ann Oliver (who shaved a whopping 90 minutes off of Fukunaga's first cut) deserve as much credit as the director in making this movie as streamlined and audience-friendly as could be possibly be expected.

Seeing to minute details of a film before and after it shoots is always preferable, but with a story like "Jane Eyre," the casting of the two leads is the most crucial aspect and Fukunaga totally nails it. The Jane character is one of the most demanding in all of adapted literature. If played correctly, she says little and must rely almost completely on a very limited range of body language.

Even with her two impressive breakthrough 2010 performances ("Alice in Wonderland" and "The Kids Are All Right") Mia Wasikowska (pronounced vah-shee-kof-ska) is an unlikely choice for Jane. Usually played by older brunettes, Wasikowska -- with her severely pinned-back, dishwater-dull, mousy blonde hair and flattened, grayish porcelain complexion -- is a perfect fit. With two required exceptions, Wasikowska voices no emotion for the duration yet is able to deftly display the silent strength, unwavering resolve and put upon nature of the character Bronte so elegantly imparted to the printed page.

Starring opposite Wasikowska as Mr. Rochester is Michael Fassbender, another up-and-comer best known for his role of the clipped, elitist British officer Hicox in "Inglourious Basterds." For reasons not explained until well into the movie, Rochester is a bitter and sullen man prone to mercurial mood swings and one who doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Rather than turn Rochester into a maniacal tyrant as many before him have done, Fassbender -- like his leading lady -- externalizes through precise movement, although his Rochester is far more demonstrative than Jane. Initially indifferent and borderline dismissive of Jane, Rochester grows to respect her because of her intellect and refusal to callow in his presence like the majority of his other employees. Even though fond of and impressed with Jane, Rochester isn't beyond messing with her head and toying with her heart in a most dastardly manner.

Not a chick flick in the strictest sense of the term, this version of "Jane Eyre" is more of an exploration of old world female empowerment and not letting a long string of defeats get the best of you. If anyone ever had reasons to repeatedly throw in the towel and give up, it would be Jane. Modern day women -- and men for that matter -- could learn a lot from her. (Focus Features)