Twilight Time // 1943 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 23rd, 2013
A love story every woman would die a thousand deaths to live!
"Are you always drawn to the loveless and unfriended?"
Growing up wasn't an easy process for Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca). During her formative years, she was forced to contend with a cruel guardian (Agnes Moorehead, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte), a mean-spirited minister (Henry Daniell, The Great Dictator) and the chilly climate of a girl's boarding school. However, now she has grown older and has secured a position as a governess in the home of the brooding Edward Rochester (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane). Initially, Rochester seems as if he will be just another overbearing authority figure in Jane's life, but she quickly discovers that he's a complex, layered individual. Soon, both Rochester and Jane find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. Can this romance work, or it is doomed to fail?
The opening shot of Robert Stevenson's 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre is one employed by many older literary adaptations: a shot of the book upon which the film is based. Throughout the film, we see bits and pieces of text from the novel (which provides Fontaine's narration with visual accompaniment). These moments provide a good indicator that we're dealing with a fairly conventional, old-fashioned literary adaptation that isn't going to take a lot of chances artistically. That's okay, but it prevents the film from ever achieving true greatness or eclipsing its source material (for a Jane Eyre that achieves that, you'll need to take a look at Cary Fukanaga's 2011 film).
Whatever its other flaws or virtues, this is certainly a lean, fast-paced version of the tale -- at 96 minutes, it's shorter than every other big-screen adaptation. Even so, nothing feels particularly compromised or short-changed -- it's simply that Stevenson and his co-writers John Houseman and Aldous Huxley (!) don't have much interest in digging too deep below the surface of the novel or indulging the sort of moody, atmospheric material that has played a key role in other adaptations of this tale (though there are certainly some moments of gothic melodrama).
Yes, Jane Eyre is a good film, but it's awfully stiff at times. This is particularly evident in some of the performances. Henry Daniell's wicked minister and John Sutton's good-hearted doctor are such blandly conventional representatives of good and evil, reciting their lines as if they're preserving them for history. Almost every actor in the film is doing something closer to stage acting than film acting (save for Fontaine, whose subtlety helps compensate for the fact that she's too old for the role she's playing), which works well enough in some cases and distracts in others. The theatricality of the film is further emphasized by Bernard Herrmann's stormy score; a strong early work from the gifted composer.
The most notable, distinctive element of this Jane Eyre is Orson Welles' turn as Rochester. Welles doesn't do a particularly good job of conjuring the Rochester of the novel, but he's certainly a magnetic presence. Welles storms his way through the tale in memorable fashion; his eyes bulging and his brow dripping with sweat. There's a fire in his performance that is largely missing from the rest of the film, and he serves as effective counterpoint to Fontaine's deliberately muted performance. Despite the fact that Welles doesn't even appear in the film's first act and that the movie is called Jane Eyre, Welles gets first billing. That seems appropriate enough, considering that he's the element that is most likely to linger with you.
Jane Eyre (Blu-ray) has received a 1080p/Full Frame transfers that highlights Greg Barnes' effectively moody cinematography (the film's other primary virtue). There are, unfortunately, quite a few scratches and flecks present throughout, largely due to the fact that the film hasn't been terribly well-preserved over the years. The image is also wobbly and soft at times -- it looks better than it did on DVD, but not by a huge margin. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is similarly mixed, suffering from some occasional hiss and never really permitting Herrmann's score to sound as robust as it ought to. Dialogue is generally pretty clean, though. Supplements include two audio commentaries (one with Joseph McBride and actress Margaret O'Brien, another with Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Steven C. Smith), a featurette called "Locked in the Tower: The Men Behind Jane Eyre" (19 minutes), a propaganda short directed by Stevenson called "Know Your Ally Britain" (42 minutes), an isolated score track and a trailer. Props to Twilight Time for delivering a strong supplemental package this time around rather -- hopefully it's a trend that will continue.
The 1943 Jane Eyre isn't the definitive cinematic version of the tale, but it's a worthy effort anchored by a thunderous Orson Welles performance. The Blu-ray transfer and audio is mediocre, but the bonus features help ease the pain.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1943
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film
* Isolated Score