“Jane Eyre,” the definitive film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous 19th-century tome, the screenplay of which was co-penned by that myopic yet farsighted British genius Aldous Huxley, sits like a neglected orphaned niece in the shadows of its more famous Golden-Age Hollywood period piece cousins, though it bears the unmistakable marks of family resemblance; thick with atmosphere, heady with passion, and running over with witty dialogue, orchestral bombast, and intricate tone-setting.
Here’s Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, icon of the Romantic movement…
…and here’s cinematographer George Barnes’ shot of Rochester (Orson Welles), storming in off the misty moors.
One sees a curious kinship between the monochrome cinema and the printed book that makes their union seem more than mere marriage of convenience; the former, though divorced both in time and manner of consumption from the latter, seems uniquely able to capture a literary work’s essence without outraging its dignity, as bumbling, ostentatious TechniColor, or indeed our contemporary and equally less-than-sober filming techniques, are bound to. To this cinephile’s eyes and ears, the black-and-white period piece truly is ebony and ivory.
Mark Twain, said this of classic books: “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Clearly, our old friend Sammy Clemens lived in an age before cinema, when one can just watch the movie, or even better, read cultured reviews of said film adaptations.
For those bumpkins and barbarians who are not acquainted with this seminal work, Jane Eyre follows the life of the titular English heroine, Miss Eyre, from her unhappy childhood as a beaten-down though strong-willed orphan, to her unfortunate girlhood tenure at the Brocklehurst School under an authoritarian and sadistic Puritan, Reverend Brocklehurst, to her relatively liberated life as a governess to the cheerful, buoyant, theatrical French tot Adele, at the hall of a reclusive, haunted, and brooding aristocrat, one Edward Rochester.
As one follows Jane through her life, the misty, bleak English moors mark the vague limits of her desolate world, at once a looming presence and a vast loneliness, imbuing every moment with melancholy. The indoor spaces, from the cold, bare, and spartan Brocklehurst School, to the largely empty stone rooms of the rambling Rochester Hall, press in upon us, reminding us of the profound literal and figurative darkness of an age without electric lighting.
In the midst of this bleakness, the young girl Adele, with her french accent, penchant for flamboyant outfits, and spontaneous fits of dance, jumps off the screen, lighting up the faces of Jane and Edward whenever she sweeps into a room; the orchestra immediately switches from ponderous bass and ominous brass to light flutes and violins. If I were to remake this film today, I would choose to keep the movie in black-and-white, though selectively coloring in Adele, a la Frank Miller’s Sin City (not enough films use this striking technique!).
Though I wish not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, I think it will surprise no one to find out that, towards the middle of the movie, a fair deal of romantic tension develops between innocent, straightforward, polite yet brutally honest Jane (Joan Fontaine), and gruff, mysterious, world-wise and world-weary Edward (Orson Welles).
The vast network of claustrophobic passages, mysteriously bolted chambers, drafty, immense rooms, and lonely towers that is the ancient Rochester Hall come to blend with the equally labyrinthian mind and emotions of Rochester himself as Jane slowly unravels his darkest secrets, in a masterfully executed metaphor of the ‘house as man,’ that was perfected by Bronte’s contemporary Edgar Allen Poe in his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
I must say, though mired for much of the movie in a solitary anguish born of his past mistakes and terrible secrets, Orson Welles’ character does get in some remarkably cutting dialogue, as this imperious honey badger of a man toys with the hearts of gold-digging blonde Blanche Ingram and humble governess Eyre alike, causing wholesale awkwardness at the party (no period piece would be complete without a ‘party’ scene, would it?)
Towards the end, Edward is temporarily blinded due to an injury. Narrator Jane describes his coming to see again, first the sun, then the face of their newborn child, then the world, as he is reinvigorated and transformed by romantic love.
It is enlightening to note here that we are talking of a screenplay at least partly penned by Aldous Huxley, who was partially blinded in childhood, and whose books are chock full of visual metaphors and brilliant, vibrant imagery, in spite of or perhaps because of his coke-bottle perspective. Also, much could be made of Rochester’s regaining of vision vis-a-vis Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which the cave-dweller is blinded by the sun (truth), and comes in time to see the ignorance of living in a world of shadows, and even the Symposium, in which the seeker of wisdom comes to grasp the good/true/beautiful first through romantic love, and then through progressively more general steps- but we will delve no deeper into such dubious philosophical matters here.
If you’re looking for Victorian romance, mystery, gothic architecture, unrequited love, or any other such rarefied passions, look no further than the spectral moors amidst which the curious tale of Jane Eyre takes place. I give this film four melodicas out of five.