Saturday 19 September 2015

Movie Review: Jane Eyre (1943)

An adaptation of the classic Charlotte Brontë novel about an orphan's awakening into adulthood, Jane Eyre is an exquisitely constructed dramatic romance. After creating a bleak shroud of physical and emotional foreboding, the film punctures through the despair with a story of love against all the odds.

England, 1830. Ten year old Jane Eyre (Peggy Ann Garner) is an orphan child, living with her cold aunt Mrs. Reed (Agnes Moorehead). Jane brightens up when she thinks that she is being sent to school, but in fact Mrs. Reed dispatches her to live at the nightmarish Lowood Institution, run by religious zealot and strict disciplinarian Reverend Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell). Her only friends are another young girl called Helen (an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor) and the kindly Dr. Rivers (John Sutton).

At 20 years old, Jane (Joan Fontaine) rejects a teaching position at Lowood and strikes out on her own. She secures a job as the governess for a young girl called Adele (Margaret O'Brien), living at the isolated, massive Thornfield estate, owned by the frequently absent Edward Rochester (Orson Welles).

Jane finally meets Edward on the foggy moors, accidentally knocking him off his horse. He is gruff, rich and mysterious, but Jane cannot help fall in love with him. Gradually, she starts to discover the layers of secrets in Edward's life, including his relationship with beautiful socialite Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke). Most worryingly, Jane starts to suspect that there are others who live in the closed-off mansion towers, as horrifying screams and hysterical laughter echo through the night. Then an intentional fire suggests that Edward Rochester's Thornfield is not just mysterious, but potentially deadly.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, Jane Eyre is a presented as a gothic romance between deeply damaged lovers. Set against a stunning backdrop of a dreary England enveloped by seemingly perpetual darkness, fog and rain (and all filmed on a Hollywood soundstage), the film brilliantly succeeds in creating a visual aesthetic that matches the psyches of Jane and Edward.

In different ways and through different circumstances, both are tortured by their pasts and carry deep scars. Jane's story is known before they meet; Edward's story becomes the focus of the second part of the film, and Jane will learn it is indeed possible for the rich and privileged to suffer just as much as she did as a poor orphan.

At just 97 minutes, Jane Eyre proceeds at a crisp pace without sacrificing character depth. Once Stevenson makes his dramatic points he does not linger, quickly moving on to the next chapter. This being fundamentally the story of two characters discovering an unlikely pathway to happiness through each other, there are plenty of dialogue passages between Jane and Edward, but they are handled with a welcome briskness and lack of melodrama.

Helped by the cinematography of George Barnes and a magnificent Bernard Herrman music score, Stevenson creates several memorable moments to highlight Jane's journey. At Lowood a young Jane is made to stand on a stool, alone, punished by Brocklehurst and labelled a liar. Then Helen quietly approaches with an extended hand of friendship and some food: there is kindness in the world.

The first meeting between Jane and Edward is bravado filmmaking at its best. Jane is out for a walk in the nighttime fog. A barking dog, galloping hooves, a startled, falling horse, and Edward emerges from the ground behind her like a dark monster out of the deep. He is in his own hell, and maybe she is his salvation. Later Jane finds herself caring for an unexpected patient in the isolated tower of Thornfield. A locked wooden door behind her starts to rattle and vibrate. Someone violent is trying to invade her room. She is not to let them in, and will need to endure the violently shaking door all night.

After Rebecca and Suspicion, Joan Fontaine was on a winning streak portraying women involved in dark, mysterious and potentially dangerous relationships, and she does not disappoint. She allows Jane to maintain an inner steeliness borne from life as an orphan, combined with an openness to embrace whatever good life will send her way. Orson Welles is domineering as Edward Rochester, carrying unspoken agonies behind his eyes and shielding his vulnerabilities with a coarse, uncompromising exterior attitude, with just the occasional hint of the potentially tender man underneath. Among the supporting cast, Henry Daniell is worth a mention as Reverend Brocklehurst. It's difficult to imagine a more uncaring, abhorrent man, hiding within the cloak of authority and religious righteousness.

Visually rich and emotionally satisfying, Jane Eyre is a sumptuous achievement.

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