Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.
Release Date: April 7th, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Stevenson Actors: Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Margaret O’Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, John Sutton, Sara Allgood, Henry Daniell, Agnes Moorehead, Aubrey Mather, Edith Barrett, Hillary Brooke
rowing up England in 1820 as an only child, raised by her aunt Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead), Jane Eyre is kept in a small closet and severely neglected. It’s a harsh upbringing in a particularly disagreeable time for those without money and position. The incredibly cold Henry Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) suggests that the unfortunate orphan, proclaimed a wicked child, should be transferred to a boarding school near his home. Little Jane is overjoyed to be removed from Reed’s estate, certain that anywhere else will be far more inviting.
But the Lowood Institution is more of a prison than a school, run with unwavering cruelty and severity by Brocklehurst himself. In 1829, Jane is subjected to further mistreatment, shunned by the staff and students advised of her wickedness (though she’s never shown to be troublesome). Only little Helen (Elizabeth Taylor) provides friendship to the pitiful newcomer. Dr. Rivers (John Sutton) is also genuinely concerned for the children, though he has no control over Brocklehurst’s strict governance. Ten years later, Jane (Joan Fontaine), now an adult, has no interest in staying at the institution, which has only provided unforgivable unkindness. Instead, she journeys out into the world, hoping to achieve a governess position. When she accepts a job with Mrs. Fairfax (Edith Barrett), the caretaker of Thornfield castle, Jane looks after young Adele (Margaret O’Brien), the ward of the estate’s owner, Edward Rochester (Orson Welles). And Rochester’s frosty, impatient command isn’t too dissimilar from her previously hard-hearted overseer, though his demeanor is regulated by some dark secrets (in particular, a ghastly resident) and a painful past.
The child actors aren’t terribly convincing, though they look their parts. Duty, responsibility, doing God’s work, recognizing unfairness, and preparing oneself for a life of servitude – all wrapped up in archaic conventions (or anti-Victorian restrictiveness) – aren’t notions that appear compatible with such young children. And the small girls struggle to convey a significant understanding. Comparably, an overdramatic air graces most of the adult interactions, though they clearly possess the poignancy of the source material. Visually, the film is shot along the lines of a film noir (or distinctly Gothic), appropriately portraying the ugliness of Eyre’s world, with thick fog and inky shadows contrasting beams of bright highlights across classically framed visages, bleak environments and coarse stone enclosures, and an ominous soundtrack that foreshadows the unveiling of unpleasant concealments.
With a swift 97-minute running time, director Robert Stevenson’s “Jane Eyre” is considerably rushed and greatly condensed from the famous Charlotte Bronte novel; a few scenes glimpse literal pages of the book to lift exact quotes as bridging narration, while others end quite abruptly. But the potency of the story nevertheless makes its way into the picture, led by Welles’ forceful, engaging performance (full of torment and tormenting) and Fontaine’s fittingly opposing mousiness (and quiet attractiveness). The faithfully adapted poetic dialogue is also striking. The notion of happiness – in prosperousness, justice, equality, and love – seemingly forever eluding a protagonist so deserving of it, is indeed heartbreaking, though Bronte’s sense of romanticism demands a wholly satisfying conclusion. Small wins are few and far between, with tragedy and misfortune abounding, but the finale is still monumentally encouraging.
– Mike Massie