Jane Eyre (1944)
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Robert Stevenson. Cast: Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles, Peggy Ann Garner, Margaret O'Brien, Edith Barrett, Agnes Moorehead, Henry Daniell, John Sutton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sara Allgood, Ethel Griffies, John Abbott, Aubrey Mather, Barbara Everest. Screenplay: Robert Stevenson, Aldous Huxley, and John Houseman (based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë).

Photo © 1944 20th Century Fox
The 96-minute running time offers sufficient warning that this Fox version of Jane Eyre won't encompass all the incidents or characters, much less the nuances of Charlotte Brontë's immortal novel, and if Jane and Rochester have never registered as literature's most obviously compatible couple, tremulous Joan Fontaine and cocky-steer Orson Welles are even less so. But what this Jane Eyre sometimes lacks in rhythm, pace, or consistency it more than compensates in aggressive atmospherics. Agnes Moorehead, the first star to materialize on screen, had an especially fruitcakey year in 1944, but Henry Daniell conjures an especially malign austerity as the despot of Lowood School who comes to collect vitriolic, cooped-up Jane and cart her off to his cold stone academy. Peggy Ann Garner is precociously tough as young Jane, but even she is quickly overmatched by the freezing rain, the scraped white light, the expressionist tensions, and the damp, inhospitable textures of life at Lowood. This commitment to the environemental and emotional austerity at the heart of Jane Eyre persists through Jane's maturation and her famous career as the governess, the unrequited desirer, the benighted mistress, the shamed refugee, and the prodigal lover-helpmeet of Rochester's estate. The whole picture seems to fuse a relentless, revisionist Mercury Theater "take" on Jane Eyre to an obvious attempt on the part of Fox to ride the post-Rebecca wave of Gothic romantic mystery, as witness the casting of Fontaine and the cinematography of George Barnes, who had poked, lurked, and dreamed so memorably around the oppressive sensuality of Maxim de Winter's home. Jane Eyre relates itself through such bold, hard strokes, even when it means veering away from some key cruxes of Brontë's famous plot, that the dissimilar acting styles, a few vicissitudes of looping and staging, and the highly compressed and compromised finale don't harm the movie so much as make it more thought-provokingly idiosyncratic, without setting itself up to disappoint fans of, say, the Olivier/Oberon Wuthering Heights (over which this Jane Eyre is an indisputable improvement). The sense of implacable terror evoked around the unseen Bertha Rochester, metonymized through a bolted door, a spookily distressed caretaker, and an inky recess in a damp castle wall, makes up for the letdown of not seeing Bertha light up the joint and burn it to the ground. Perhaps most impressively, Bernard Herrmann's score—written when he had few credits to his name outside of the absurdly auspicious trio of Kane, Ambersons, and The Devil and Daniel Webster—would, if it needed to, have furnished a scary, dramatic, rewarding recuperation of a much less intriguing movie than Jane Eyre already is. Grade: B

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