THE NEW “Rogue One” doesn’t just provide the Star Wars universe with another Force-ful heroine. The film, opening Friday, also delivers the franchise’s greatest lead female performance yet.
Carrie Fisher, a teenager when cast as Princess Leia, shaped an iconic role, but seldom was great acting depth demanded of her; the original trilogy had the tone of Saturday serials crossed with “Flash Gordon” comics, so Fisher did her best to dutifully play what was written.
Natalie Portman, like Fisher, was still a teenager when first climbing aboard the Star Wars vessel, as Queen Amidala/Padme in 1999’s “Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (after impressing as an adolescent in “Leon: The Professional”). By the time Portman completed the prequel trilogy, in 2005, she had held her own in “Closer” and delivered a powerful scene in “Cold Mountain.” But she was still growing her actor’s tool kit en route to taking on more demanding starring roles, such as her Oscar-winning performance in 2010’s “The Black Swan” and her acclaimed work in this year’s “Jackie.” And Amidala, as a role, could be as confining as her costumes were.
Last year’s “The Force Awakens” pushed Daisy Ridley, as new heroine Rey, to grow as an actress after mostly spot work in television, including “Silent Witness.” Director J.J. Abrams famously called her early “Force Awakens” line-reads wooden; as the trilogy progresses, she undoubtedly will continue to deepen in the role.
But as Rebel leader Jyn Erso in “Rogue One,” the accomplished 33-year-old actress Felicity Jones delivers a memorable performance that relies heavily on a mix of lithe physicality and close-up intensity.
It is easy, in an action-adventure film, to occasionally lapse into histrionic flourishes, yet Jones never slips into that acting trap. Director Gareth Edwards has created the most naturalistic Star Wars film yet, and so he has guided Jones to pitch a performance more often at slow-burning ember than showy firework. This often is ensemble work, and Jones knows how to nimbly build bonds on screen that deepen the story, rather than chew scenery.
Jones can look small on screen, yet seldom is without a fiercely alert presence — such as in 2011’s “Like Crazy” and her Oscar-nominated work in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything.” She has a certain steeliness that emanates from those light eyes and forceful physicality. She plays the character like a quick-thinking caged animal.
The result is an utterly winning achievement that anchors the entire enterprise.
The gift of truthful presence is with her.