It's hard to review a 97 minute movie based on a 400 page, densely threaded novel. There simply isn't enough time to hit all the key points in the story. But what they did here was commendable, if incomplete.
Of the four big budget productions I've seen ('44, '96, '97, '06), this one comes closest to capturing the story's dark tone. This is largely due to George Barne's magnificent black and white photography and lighting, producing sharp contrasts of shadow and light. I think this works in concert with the book's themes. JANE EYRE is as much a story of contrast and conflict, as it is about likeness and profound union. Apart from the child-abuse, dark secrets and near bigamous marriage, the heroine is at odds philosophically with nearly every other major character in the story. In one corner are the dogmatic Helen Burns and St. John Rivers, in another the cruel, hypocritical Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst, in a third, the man she loves, the rule-bending, ethically bankrupt Edward Rochester with much society and little connection... and in the fourth, by herself, Jane.
It's also a story of bold challenge, which, (at least to some) places the protagonist squarely on the dark side of "Gods" law when she questions Burns, about the very existence of afterlife, and River's about sanctity of living for the it. Like most versions, these are omitted, but the films style goes a long way to at least suggest the tale has a dark underbelly. We do see the child abuse, and of course the attempted "feigned union" with the"defrauded wretch", we just never get a complete picture of all she's rejecting in favor of the wretch.
Like most short adaptations, there's no St. John Rivers. He exists in name only as a kindly doctor. Consequently there's no contrasting philosophy between this character who lives for the hereafter and boasts of his mastery of impulse control, and Edward Rochester who lives for the now, and is notable for his lack of it.
The studio sets, which include hand painted skies as backdrops, also lend weight to the tale which is rooted in abstract ideas. Though I suspect people accustomed to location shots and heavy CGI may balk.
The script is necessarily shaved. The dialog, which is a mix of excerpted Brontë and invention, is well crafted and tonally consistent. If they lacked the author's brilliance, at least they did no harm. Unlike '06, which was not simply modernized, but flat out bad; and ranged from prosaic to shamefully expository, and often laughable. The '97 was similarly afflicted.
Jane's childhood is handled remarkably well considering time constraints. Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane is wonderfully spunky, willful and sympathetic. And Bessie (Sara Allgood), is played with just the right balance of sternness and warmth. Otherwise they manage to convey the severity of Lowood Institution fairly effectively.
Both Welles and Fontaine have both given better performances, Here their characters are more suggested than dramatically realized. Still Welles does possess a commanding presence and menace necessary to play Edward Rochester, which is heightened by dramatic lighting. This also aids Fontaine, (albeit to a lesser extent), whose delivery, like Welles', is often self-conscious. She tends to be more mouse-like, than understated, and lacks the inner acuity, curiosity and intense study of her master of the novel -- and there are no explosive clashes to offset her demeanor. But since the best story teller here is the visuals, it is strong camera work and editing, that carry her through Jane's concerns, longing and pain... and even her admonishment of her master.
Having seen many adaptations of JANE EYRE this past year, it was interesting to note that Welles and Fontaine were in good company, finding these roles elusive. I found many a strong actor stumbling their way through performances. A quick summary.
ROCHESTERS: * William Hurt ('96) Singularly-Internally-Wounded Rochester; * Ciaran Hinds ('97) Maniacal-Rochester; * Toby Stevens ('06) I'm-Not-Really-Rochester, Rochester. "Hey I'm not half as bad as Brontë made me out to be."
JANES: * Charlotte Gainsbourg ('96) Sweet-Mouse-Like Jane II; * Samantha Morton ('97) Bossy-Jane; * Ruth Wilson ('06) Extremely-Sympathetic-Jane. In my opinion the best of the four, but incomplete; likely a victim of a *very* weak script.
What Welles/ Fontaine have in their favor is a contrasting resonance, which keeps the dynamic of the story intact. Something some later adaptations lack. However while we might imagine this Rochester threatening Jane with violence when she tells him she's leaving, it might be a bit tougher to imagine this Jane, summoning enough strength, through emotional exhaustion, to calm him when he threatens her and is about to "... plunge headlong into wild license," But technically we don't need to. The scene, as in most versions, is omitted. Here it's basically condensed into one last... "we'd be hurting no one Jane," and she softly blesses him for his kindness and leaves. The shot is atmospheric and affecting. It doesn't convey his savage, twisted state, or how depleted she is, or the excruciating struggle she's just endured, or the courage it took to endure it (but few versions do), but we do at least feel some stakes in this one, if not intensely.
Me, I think the miniseries format is the only way to do justice to this novel. But apart from the flawed but mostly wonderful Clarke/Dalton '83 -- which I think overall has the richest characterizations and script, but is as wanting of visual artistry as this one is dependent on it -- there's nothing that really works for me. I'm hoping HBO will tackle this material someday. Who better to do language, long threaded narratives, complex themes, ambiguous characters, or characters with surprising contrasts?
If you don't mind a broad suggestion of the story, rather than a fully articulated version, you might find this one worth a look. If only for the shadow and light of it.
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