Blog Directory CineVerse: No mere plain Jane

No mere plain Jane

Thursday, April 19, 2018

In many ways, the 1943 film version of "Jane Eyre" plays like a mashup between "Wuthering Heights" and "Rebecca," two earlier gothic romance movies that share similar themes, characters and atmospheres. But "Eyre" could be the darkest of the three in tone, visuals and plot. Among the trio, this picture, directed by Robert Stevenson, is typically the most overlooked and underappreciated. But it has merits and facets well worth rediscovery. Here are the talking points we explored at last night's CineVerse outing:


  • The filmmakers took a longer, sprawling novel and pared it down to its essential elements for a more digestible and entertaining film experience.
  • It has a strong pedigree: consider that it stars Orson Welles and Best actress Academy award recipient Joan Fontaine; the memorable score is by Bernard Herrmann; the screenplay was co-written by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley; respected cinematographer George Barnes was responsible for the lighting and look; and, before he sold the rights to 20th Century Fox, David O. Selznick was the producer. 
  • Some film historians and scholars suggest that Welles may have contributed in helping to direct the picture:
    • “Stevens and cinematographer George Barnes often frame things in much the same way Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland did in Citizen Kane or how Welles and Stanley Cortez approached The Magnificent Ambersons. While the use of deep focus is somewhat limited, at least when compared to the "excesses" of the Welles films, there are striking angles and incredible chiaroscuro lighting in abundance throughout this Jane Eyre,” wrote reviewer Jeffrey Kaufman.
  • The score by Hermann is quite memorable and romantic, imbued with his characteristic leitmotifs and strong themes.
  • The picture is rather nourish visually in its use of low-key chiaroscuro lighting, canted angles, and dark, brooding secrets and intrigue; arguably, there’s an inverse femme fatale at work, too, in the form of Rochester’s insane wife.
  • Jane rarely talks, which is unusual for a lead protagonist.
  • Both star Joan Fontaine, who plays a quiet, reserved, modest and innocent young woman in both.
  • Both films feature a main protagonist thwarted by a former or shunned wife.
  • Both depict the young woman coming to live in a dark Gothic English mansion ruled by a husband/moody aristocrat who cannot fully love the female lead until he solves the problem of his former or shunned spouse.
  • Both films end in a blaze of cleansing fire that destroys the mansion and the impediment between the female protagonist and her love interest.
  • Redemption of the Byronic hero, defined as “an antihero of the highest order. He is typically rebellious, arrogant, anti-social or in exile, and darkly, enticingly romantic” and often attractive, according to Shmoop. The character of Rochester is often unlikable, but he is redeemed after attempting to rescue his wife from the blaze, causing him to lose his vision. His eyesight returning later suggests that he is worthy of Jane’s love and can see through new eyes.
  • The struggle between love and freedom/autonomy
  • Cruelty, suffering and injustice
  • The strength and resilience of a good soul. “I could crush you between my hands, but your spirit would still be free,” Rochester tells Jane.
  • The quest for belonging and being a part of a family
  • The hypocrisy of religious zealots
  • Gender inequality and class/social differences
  • The contrast between beauty on the inside versus beauty on the outside.
  • The notion of “the self.” Karen Swallow Prior, essayist for The Atlantic, wrote: “Perhaps the first novel to best express the modern idea of the self was Jane Eyre.” “Brontë’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t in plot devices. It was the narrative voice of Jane—who so openly expressed her desire for identity, definition, meaning, and agency—that rang powerfully true to its 19th-century audience.” “The broader cultural implications of the story—its insistence on the value of conscience and will—were such that one critic fretted some years after its publication that the “most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre.” Before the Reformation and the Enlightenment that followed, before Rene Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), when the sources of authority were external and objective, the aspects of the self so central to today’s understanding mattered little because they didn’t really affect the course of an individual’s life. The Reformation empowered believers to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves, rather than relying on the help of clergy; by extension, this seemed to give people permission to read and interpret their own interior world.” “No earlier novelist had provided a voice so seemingly pure, so fully belonging to the character, as Brontë.” 
  • I Walked with a Zombie, the 1943 B-movie by RKO/Val Lewton that adapted Jane Eyre into a horror film set in the West Indies
  • Other 20th Century Fox period piece movies of this time, including The Lodger, Hangover Square, and Dragonwyck
  • Citizen Kane, also featuring Orson Welles and other Mercury Theater collaborators
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Bright Star
  • Onegin
  • The Invisible Woman
  • Rebecca
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mary Poppins
  • Many Disney family films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug, and Old Yeller

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