Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Jane Eyre (1944)


I think we may have a winner.

While Joan Fontaine is far too pretty to be a believable Jane Eyre, Orson Welles is far and away the best Rochester I've seen to date.  And good thing, too, since this version focuses much more heavily Jane's gruff employer than on the titular character herself.  Jane's thought life and personality are not well developed, though periodic voiceover readings from the 'text' help flesh her out a bit.  But Welles shines as Rochester in all his brusque and peremptory glory.  Where other Rochesters are inclined to mopey artistic petulance and whiny temper tantrums, Welles explodes off the screen, full of thundering rage and masculine pride.  This is no mewling, puling poet, but a strong, authoritative man whose misguided efforts at courtship, though effective, are manipulative, cruel, and callous.  We believe that he is something of a social outcast, that Blanche must be after his money.  We believe that Jane, with her extensive experience of hardship and cruelty, is largely unperturbed by his bluster and can see through the rough exterior and harsh words to the man beneath.

This is by no means an adaption that clings with dogged faithfulness to the details of the source material.  The writers took several liberties with the plot of the story.  Jane's detour to the Rivers' household is bypassed entirely; she flees instead to the Reed house, ostensibly to see Bessie, the housemaid who was once kind to her.  It is here that she has her final encounter with Mrs. Reed (the inimitable Agnes Moorehead), and here that she hears Rochester's haunting cry.  There is a brief scene involving the sale of Mrs. Reed's property, which could be taken to imply that it is this inheritance that gives Jane her independence (since Mrs. Reed has only the one son, John, and he is dead), but the matter is never explicitly addressed.

The film devotes a bit more time to Jane's years at Lowood, the cruelty she experiences at the hands of Mr. Brocklehurst, and her poignant relationship with Helen Burns (a very young Elizabeth Taylor, believe it or not, in an early uncredited appearance), but, as in other versions, the important lesson of forgiveness is still not really explored.  Then again, as the filmmakers removed Jane's ultimate forgiveness of the unrepentant Mrs. Reed, the issue of forgiveness is less vital (though Jane's transformation from volatile child to serene and self-controlled young woman is still unexplained).  And like I said, this version isn't really about Jane anyway.  Fontaine does what she can--she sometimes manages to exude a quiet calm in the face of Rochester's outbursts, and she certainly sells Jane's inner turmoil throughout the film.  But she lacks the external composure and self-assurance that Jane is supposed to display.  She is a much better Second Mrs. de Winter than she is a Jane Eyre.  The director was wise to focus his attention on Welles' Rochester instead.

So yes, this adaptation takes some liberties with Charlotte Brontë's classic novel--not all of which are successful. It is worth noting, however, that the mood here is vastly different from other versions I have seen, and much more consistent with the original novel.  Each scene is full of long and looming shadows, the moor is rife with forbidding fog, and the score, while perhaps cheesy and overwrought to our modern sensibilities, is nonetheless effective at communicating the dark and gothic tone of the film.  This is, by far, the 'scariest' of the adaptations I've seen.  Definitely worth watching.

**A bit of history about the film:  It was originally a project planned by David O. Selznick, but he eventually sold the whole thing, because he felt it was too similar to his recent film Rebecca.  And he was right--here Joan Fontaine once again plays the socially (and economically) depressed heroine opposite an imposing leading man, to say nothing of the similar settings and shared gothic tone.  As a result, the film was ultimately directed by Robert Stevenson, who--fun fact--went on to direct many of Disney's significantly more light-hearted live action films, such as The Absent-Minded Professor, The Gnome-Mobile, That Darn Cat, Blackbeard's Ghost, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug, and Mary Poppins.

No comments: