Are you always drawn to the loveless and unfriended? ~ Edward Rochester
When it’s deserved. ~ Jane Eyre
I can still recall visiting the Bronte Parsonage, marveling at the fact that these sisters were able to have such a lasting impact on the world of literature — a world so often dominated by men at that time — and I simultaneously rued the fact that I had yet to crack open any of their works. Now several years down the road, I still have not opened up Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre by Emily and Charlotte Bronte and so I can only come into this 20th-century adaptation with certain expectations.
I realize that no film can wholly represent every page of a novel — especially of great length — because in a practical sense it’s simply not theatrically possible. But my hope is that at the very least this version of Jane Eyre maintains the essence of the source material and if nothing else I can revel in the fact that it is a thoroughly engrossing film from director Robert Stevenson.
It feels like some sort of intriguing marriage between Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and the recent craze of gothic fiction adaptations — the most noted of course being Hitchcock’s Rebecca only a few years prior — that by some strange happenstance had input from Aldous Huxley. Here we have the ever timid beauty Joan Fontaine starring once more, this time opposite Welles. But the story starts at a much earlier point in the life of Jane Eyre.
Her life is a desolate and horrible affair as we soon find out, due in part to a caustic culture that uses their religion to ostracize others instead of bringing them into the fold of society.
In fact, most of those who hold a Christian belief system are puritanical and more problematic still, hard-hearted. Ironically, there’s no room for grace in the Christian faith that they practice. Foremost among this crowd is Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniel) who runs the Lowood Institution for Girls.
It’s in this very issue revealed early on where the film finds much of its substance. Because thematically all throughout the narrative the audience is forced to grapple with various characters who are subjugated to the fringes of society and for various reasons are labeled as outcasts.
This is how Jane is seen first by her unfeeling aunt (Agnes Moorehead), then by the narrow-minded reverend. They seem absolutely incapable of compassion sitting atop their high horses of proclaimed humility and charity. In reality, they have very little of either to offer. A few do show her kindness including Dr. Rivers (John Sutton) and the cook Bessie (Sarah Allgood) but such behavior is the exception and not the norm.
Still, Jane the very person who has been relegated to a wretched and lesser state is for that very reason ready and willing to reach out to those around her who are treated likewise. The very fact that she has been marginalized allows her to see it in others and be compelled to move toward them when others move away. She cares deeply for the outsider.
The most galvanizing experience involves her closest friend as a young girl (played by a child who still is very unmistakably Elizabeth Taylor). Then as she grows up and chooses to move away from the oppression of her surrogate home, it is the role of a governess in a gothic manor that once more allows her the opportunity to extend her graces to others. First in the form of the precocious ballerina extraordinaire (Margaret O’Brien) and then the brusque but obviously tortured man of the house (Orson Welles).
She sees in him something that runs deeper than the surface. He’s far from a bad man. In fact, she grows to love and cherish him because she sees the good that dwells in his conflicted soul. Burdened as he is with guilt and a past that still haunts him to the present moment. The film exhibits a bit of a love triangle as Rochester invites many guests to his estate among them the well-to-do Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke).
But the film pulling from its source material goes a step further still. It digs into the dark recesses, involving itself with the less than pleasant realities, namely an unseen person who hangs over the storyline like a specter. In those very designs, whether they are simply employing the rhythms of Bronte’s book or not, there’s another evident parallel there with the 1940 adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Gothic tones matched with an impending sense of foreboding with the demure Fontaine similarly relating the action through voiceover even reading verbatim off the page as if from a diary. And once again it works. While there is no Mrs. Danvers, Welles has the same Shakespearian gravitas of an Olivier that accentuates the very modesty of many of Fontaine’s performances. Their exchanges reflect the sensibilities of the time but furthermore help draw up the very differences of their characters. However, as much as that juxtaposition would seem to draw them apart it even more passionately brings them together.
Some might find this rendition of Jane Eyre too stark, too much of a studio production, even too abrupt, but with Welles and Fontaine opposite each other, it’s a frequently enjoyable gothic romance. As much as gothic romances can possibly be enjoyable.