Jane Eyre Revisited: Here I Go Again!

Inspired by Joe, I am rewatching Jane Eyre films, starting with Jane Eyre (1944), starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. I provide my latest review followed by my earlier one (I will be writing the 2014/2015 reviews before rereading the 2005 ones--after all, my opinions might change!) 

December 2014

Joan Fontaine is more an Austen heroine than a Bronte one. She took on Jane Eyre at the age of 27 and exhibits all the confident maturity of, well, a 27-year-old woman. (She would make an excellent Elinor!) She comes off as didactic and well-meaning rather than smitten and raw.

This is more problematic than it sounds. Fontaine's Eyre lacks mischievousness--in a later version, when commanded by Rochester to entertain him at the piano, Jane plays an overly performed tune, knowing it will irritate Rochester (similar to playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or singing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" for an American Idol audition). Later film Janes--and for that matter book Jane--enjoy deliberately poking the bear.

1944 Jane, however, is more into "taming" the beast than provoking him. She endures Rochester's bullying not only passively but sympathetically ("oh, the poor man"). Consequently, she becomes a pitiable figure rather than an intrinsically tough one. Instead of studying Rochester objectively with eyes hooded, she seems to look past him to what he represents (husband material). Book Rochester would HATE that. 

On multiple occasions, the movie informs its audience that Jane loves and admires Rochester; unfortunately, without the repartee--the arguing!--of other versions (and the book), that "fact" must be taken entirely on faith. Are they truly good friends? Eh . . . 

Peggy Ann Garner
Actually, 1944 is a better version than my criticism implies. Orson Welles clearly comprehended his character (even if Fontaine didn't "get" hers) and delivers Rochester's best lines with deep-throated eloquence. I love his clothes. I like his dog!

The movie is beautifully filmed and impressively fast-paced. An adaptation of Jane Eyre takes anywhere from 2 to 4+ hours. 96 minutes--without the loss of anything of great importance--is impressive. (The one flaw, as mentioned above, is that the audience doesn't get to see Jane and Rochester's relationship grow.)

Amanda Root
As for casting Jane Eyre, the child Jane Eyre, played by Peggy Ann Garner, is exactly right. For black & white, Margaret Sullavan (if the film had been made 10 years earlier) would have made a fantastic Jane. (More recently, Amanda Root even at 32--when she did Persuasion--could have captured the essence of Jane.)

June 2005

The Orson Welles' version (1944) is naturally definitive, mostly because Orson Welles is Rochester. My biggest problem with this version is Joan Fontaine. She looks so thoroughly like the nice-girl-next-door, I never fully believe in her character's persona: a somewhat eccentric, 18-year-old whose passionate otherworldiness will attract Rochester despite his good intentions. While Orson Welles is growling and beetling his brows and running about in gorgeous (and well-fitted) dressing gowns, I keep expecting Joan Fontaine to say, "Oh, and when did you want your washing done, honey?"

[I still mostly agree with my 2005 review although I think that Welles sells his role through sheer genius rather than in being exactly "right". He succeeds because (1) he uses his dialog to provide depth to the Jane-Rochester relationship; (2) oh my, that voice!] 

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