Film review: Jane Eyre (1943), directed by Robert Stevenson
With a screenplay co-written by writer Aldous Huxley, the movie begins with Dramatic Music™ (so popular in those days) and opens up to a book page, saying “Chapter 1” and beginning with “My name is Jane Eyre.” Last time I looked, the book began with “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Artistic liberties … of which there are a number in this movie.
We start off at Gateshead with Mrs Reed and “little cousin John”, a thoroughly kind Bessie and a feisty little Jane, who I thought acted very well and I really liked her. She’s taken away to Lowood where she seems a bit lost to begin with before she finds her feet.
I thought Helen Burns looked a lot like Elizabeth Taylor … which would be down to it actually being Liz Taylor, according to IMDb. She has very pretty corkscrews in her dark hair, which we’re later informed “curls naturally”. Whose hair has ever curled naturally into neat corkscrews? Helen has a bit of a cough that the kind Dr Rivers looks after, and he’s not happy to see both Helen and Jane parading outside in the rain, carrying irons in each hand and a sign around their neck. Helen’s is “VAIN” because of her pretty hair, and Jane’s is “REBELLIOUS” because she had the audacity to ask Mr Brocklehurst to leave Helen’s hair alone. Due to this being outside in the rain, pretty Helen gets a cold and dies.
Ten (!) years pass and we see the board of directors, still headed by Brocklehurst (I suppose there was no need to remove him if half the girls didn’t die of typhus because of him being stingy some years back), who suggests that they should appoint Jane Eyre as a teacher. After all, they won’t have to pay her as much as they would if they appointed someone from outside the school. Jane, who has now turned into the beautiful Joan Fontaine, isn’t thrilled to hear of the news, and says she has advertised to be a governess. Funny how ten years at Lowood can make you look a lot older than you’re supposed to be, isn’t it?
Jane doesn’t arrive straight at Thornfield, she’s dropped off at the George Inn, where a man is flirting with her and wants to buy her a drink, but prim and proper Jane declines the offer of a drink and is relieved to find someone who’s there to pick her up in order to take her to Thornfield Hall.
Thornfield is like a proper medieval castle from both outside and in. It doesn’t look like anyone would live there, unless they were … oh, I dunno, Ivanhoe? It’s a big castle as well, and if it’s big castles you want, I’d say Hogwarts looks more homely, not to mentioned lived in! Seriously stern stone walls, stone towers, stone floors, stone stairs, stone turrets, the odd floor-standing cast-iron chandelier, and big medieval wooden doors. It looks odd, but it does help to make the place exceedingly gloomy. Gloomy to the point of despair. It’s a nice castle, as castles go, but I’d prefer it full of brave knights and damsels in distress, not Jane Eyre.
This adaptation shows a very motherly side to Jane with regards to Adèle. She’s more of a kind mother than a governess, and while it has its charm, it’s perhaps not quite the point. For that matter, Rochester is very fatherly towards Adèle as well. The girl herself does a good job, but the only French she speaks (and she doesn’t quite do it in an accent either) are “mais jamais” and using the titles “monsieur” and “mademoiselle” and some short unintelligible burst when she’s first seen together with Rochester. She dances like a little ballerina, but there’s not a lot of schooling going on on-screen.
Pilot looks big and scary.
Rochester looks big and perhaps not scary as such, as Orson Welles has an appealing baby-face. Except that babies don’t frown and scowl to the degree this gentleman does. His portrayal is charming, sometimes biting, sometimes a bit too melodramatic and theatrical (“watch how my forehead crinkles because I’m ever so concerned!”, said in a loud, booming voice), but not without at least a hint of the character I know and love. There’s a dry sense of humour I appreciate very much, and forehead-crinkling aside, Orson Welles is a very handsome bloke.
Instead of sharing a smouldering moment after the fire, they both run to check on Adèle, who is sleeping like a log next to her new ballerina shoes. Rochester tells Jane a short version of the story of how Adèle was left in his care, saying how they’ve told Adèle her mother is dead, when she in fact ran off with an Italian painter. There’s a moment of tenderness in Rochester mentioning Céline to Jane, but there’s no big “wow, they fancy each other” revelation.
Next day, Jane sees Rochester riding off over the snowy hills, followed by Pilot, and he might be gone a day or years … “Winter turns to to spring”, and he returns with the Ingrams and all the others. Isn’t he supposed to be returning much sooner than months later?
One of my favourite scenes from the book is when Jane leaves the drawing room and Rochester follows. This scene is nearly lifted straight out of the book (yay!), but unfortunately we don’t get to see if
Good-night, my—” He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.
would actually take place, because it’s interrupted by the arrival of Mr Mason of Spanish Town, Jamaica …
Blanche seems very snobbish, and Rochester ends up telling her to her face that she’s only after his money and that she doesn’t love him. Go Rochester! She gets pissed off, and the party leaves, as there obviously won’t be wedding bells between those two. Shortly after, Rochester proposes (if you can call it that) to Jane, she accepts (although I do find it hard to believe her when she calls herself “plain” – woman, have you looked yourself in a mirror, like, ever?) and there’s a wedding … being interrupted and the only thing we get to see of Bertha is a pair of hands that try to strangle Rochester (Dramatic!! Music!!) when he shows her to Jane, Briggs, Mason and the vicar.
Jane’s memories drag her not to as far as 20 shillings can take her, but to Gateshead, where Bessie informs her John hung himself last summer and that Mrs Reed has had a stroke and is on her death bed. Now enters Dr Rivers again, the kind doctor from Jane’s childhood, and says someone from Millcote is looking for her, but he burns the letter when she says she doesn’t want to be found. Having sold off the furniture and probably the house after Mrs Reed’s death, Jane sits down to write a letter to Mr Brocklehurst, most likely to beg him for a teaching position back at Lowood, but the French doors blow open in the storm, the papers are scattered, candle is extinguished, there’s Dramatic Music and she hears Rochester calling for her.
Jane goes back to a ruined Thornfield, finds out Bertha’s dead and Rochester is blinded and they all live happily ever after, Dramatic Music™, The End.
It’s not the best of adaptations, but it’s not the worst either. While it’s strange how they decided to leave out Jane’s cousins altogether and have her go back to Gateshead instead, it kinda works. Just a shame there doesn’t really seem to be much of a point to it. In the book, she goes back to find Mrs Reed repentant, saying Jane has an uncle in Madeira and all that, but that she was too resentful to pass on the message back in the day, which of course later leads to Jane finding cousins and inheriting £20k. (Speaking of money, Rochester is said to be good for £6k a year – I’m pretty sure the book says £20k or so, because I remember him being worth more than the filthy rich Mr Darcy who, a couple of decades earlier, has £10k/year.)
Jane seems a bit quiet and not as spirited as she was when she was a girl, but there’s more fight in her than in Susannah York’s portrayal, so that’s a plus. Maybe those ten years at Lowood took their toll. Rochester is quite theatrical in the book, but I’m sure he doesn’t crinkle his forehead quite so much. I’m rather expecting him to say something smug. I don’t quite get the feeling of romance from this adaptation, it’s more dramatic and gloomy, and while Jane looks doe-eyed and innocent, Rochester comes off as a very sexual person, who knows just what to do to get some. Had he time-travelled to appear in a modern-day adaptation, woah, we’d need cold showers all around, I reckon.
All in all, it’s miles better than the laughable 1934 version, and I prefer it over the strange 1970 version as well. Now I just need to watch the emotionally repressed 1996 version, the “I’m Jane and I have one expression: wide-eyed surprise!” 1973 version, and the fabulous 2006 version at some point, and then the scheduled Brontë Challenge Jane Eyre watching is complete.
3.5 out of 5 turrets.