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Jane Eyre (1943)USA 1943
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Running time 96 minutes
Robert Stevenson’s version of Jane Eyre, which he adapted with John Housman and Aldous Huxley, rather worryingly begins by re-writing Charlotte Brontë’s text, which we supposedly see on the screen as its writer reads it aloud to us, a device which appears periodically throughout the film. It is a liberty which sets the tone of the production which turns the story of an unusually intelligent and brave young woman making her own way in early 19th century England into a stock Hollywood Gothic romance, all sinister chiaroscuro, barren snow-covered landscapes and stone cold fake ancient piles resounding to a dutiful Bernard Herrmann score.
Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) is an orphan who lives with her mean aunt, Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead), who sends her off to the Lowood Institution for girls headed up by the mean and religiously tyrannical Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell). After ten years servitude there she leaves to take up a position as governess where she meets the darkly brooding Mr Edward Rochester (Orson Welles) and falls in love with him.
Whilst Fontaine was excellent as the mousey young bride in Hitchcock's modern Gothic yarn, Rebecca (1940). here a similar performance is too vapid to either suit Brontë’s vision or even make her the heroine of this version. Rather it is Welles, whose stentorian performance dominates, who rules the roost. (As ever with Welles there are questions of how much creative input he had into the film. Certainly, Houseman as Welles's Mercury Theatre partner would have been amenable to Welles's suggestions) . Not that this makes the film any better as not only does Stevenson fail to imbue the film with any dramatic dynamic but the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester is too mechanically executed, particularly in the latter stages, to elicit any emotional affect. The result is a dull affair that captures none of the power of its source material.
FYI: An uncredited but striking Elizabeth Taylor appears as Jane’s school friend, Helen Burns.