With a new version of “Jane Eyre” opening in the U.S. in March, I thought I would revisit an older adaptation for this week’s column.
I only read Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” for the first time a couple of years ago, and like most Victorian literature, the novel’s story failed to make much of an impression on me. What did impress me was the ominous Gothic landscape in which Bronte places her titular protagonist, a young governess who lives and works at the ominous Thornfield Hall in the English countryside.
Jane exists at the center of oppressive forces bent on robbing her of her freedom and happiness. Her struggle throughout the novel is to overcome these forces and maintain her individuality. While the character’s struggle is compelling, the novel’s texture distinguishes it more than its story.
Bronte brings elements of a ghost story to the novel, with seemingly supernatural forces compounding Jane’s confusion. As the story progresses, you’re not sure if these forces or real or simply products of Jane’s psychological unrest. Regardless, Thornfield Hall, with its ancient design and impregnable size, feels like a haunted fortress, calling to mind settings from other Gothic works like “Frankenstein” or “The Turn of the Screw.”
This value for texture is also what distinguishes Robert Stevenson’s 1943 adaptation of the novel. The film is a visual feast, filled with bleak compositions and moody details. Stevenson and his cinematographer, George Barnes, create a mystique-laden landscape that feels like it was pulled straight from the pages of the novel. While they also succeed in bringing the story to life, it is the film’s chilling visual atmosphere that is most memorable.
The film begins with Jane’s early childhood, living under the eye of her abusive, tyrannical Aunt Reed (Agnes Moorehead) who only sees the worst in her. She sends Jane to live in a girls’ home called Lowood, overseen by the vile Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell), a dictator who uses religious rhetoric to justify his cruelty. He takes a particular interest in Jane, who he sees as little more than spawn of the devil, and torments her through years of abuse.
A decade passes at Lowood and Jane (played as an adult by Joan Fontaine) is now able to go off on her own. She advertises for a job as a governess, and is offered a position at Thornfield Hall. She quickly decides to take it and settles into her new home, where she cares for the Adele (Margaret O’Brien), a young French girl who is the ward of Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), the mysterious master of Thornfield Hall.
Rochester is easily the most memorable character in Bronte’s novel, and Welles is a brilliant choice for the character. Always a powerful presence as an actor, he plays Rochester as appropriately despotic; with his booming voice and formidable size, he commands his way through life, easily overpowering those around him. But there is also a loneliness to the character, and we sense deep wounds under his gruff exterior. When he first encounters Jane, she arouses a kindness and vulnerability in him. As their relationship deepens, we begin to see his more compassionate side.
But the Jane-Rochester relationship is far from a conventional love affair. She is his servant, and the two can never fully breach this barrier of class. A trust slowly starts to develop between them, though. Jane senses the woundedness in Rochester, something she understands only too well. A gentle yearning starts to develop between the two, as if they have both finally found their true companion.
The story, as in the novel, is hopelessly melodramatic, but Fontaine and Welles make their characters real and sympathetic. Fontaine, who played a very similar role three years earlier in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” is well used here, playing a sad, frightened woman determined to control her own life. And Welles, only two years after his triumph with “Citizen Kane,” is compelling as a powerful man determined not to reveal his own sadness and weaknesses.
Stevenson and Barnes are skillful in the way they visually illustrate the conflicts of the story. During conversations between Jane and Rochester, they always frame Welles against a black wall, letting shadows creep ominously across his face, emphasizing his tormented nature. In an early scene of Jane as a girl, there is a beautifully composed shot of Jane alone in the dining room, with shadows spread around her like the bars of a prison cell.
Their rendering of Thornfield Hall is masterful, as well. Surrounded by perennially gray skies and dead trees, the house creates a sense of dread in the mind of the viewer. Built out of harsh stone and lit only with glimmering torches, we sense the dark secrets the house contains. It’s is in these visual details that “Jane Eyre” is the most enjoyable. While the film’s story is interesting, its images are unforgettable.
Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237