Blu-ray Review: Jane Eyre (1943) - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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The 1943 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre opens with the title character’s grim assessment of life during the early-19th century. “Money and position seemed all that mattered,” Jane (Joan Fontaine) soberly states. “Charity was a cold and disagreeable word. Religion too often wore a mask of bigotry and cruelty. There was no proper place for the poor or the unfortunate.” One could easily make a case that not much has really changed some 200 years later. Director Robert Stevenson (who helmed Mary Poppins and many other Disney films) welcomes us into this harsh reality, with young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) moving from one cold, unfeeling home to another. She initially lives with her child-unfriendly aunt (Agnes Moorehead), but soon relocates to the Lowood Institution, a home for (supposedly) troubled girls.

What’s immediately most striking about this Jane Eyre is the heavily gothic atmosphere, almost evoking the mood of early horror films. The North Yorkshire, England setting (all filmed on effectively-dressed sets) is a spooky landscape of shadows and fog. Controversy has persisted over the years regarding how much of the film was a result of director Stevenson’s vision and how much was possibly contributed by star Orson Welles. Whatever the case, it’s a visually arresting film. At Lowood, Jane is psychologically abused and harshly disciplined. She survives, which is more than can be said of her best friend, Helen (an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor).

Jane Eyre TT BD cover (214x280).jpgAs a grown, but painfully naïve, woman, Jane strikes out on her own after turning down a teaching position at Lowood. She winds up at the Thornfield estate, where she has secured work as governess to a young child, Adele (Margaret O’Brien). Initially it seems the foreboding property and its personnel, all of whom are fearful of the owner Edward Rochester (Welles), aren’t much of a step up from her time at Lowood. But Jane forms a tentative, peculiar bond with Rochester, glimpsing—through sheer intuition—something warm beneath his steely, authoritative exterior. There are mysteries lurking within Thornfield, not the least of which being who, exactly, would like to see Rochester dead (his bed is set aflame one night while he sleeps).

Originally beginning life as a David O. Selznick production, which some have cited—along with the presence of Fontaine—as an explanation for the film’s relatively superficial similarities to Rebecca, Jane Eyre moves along fairly briskly, packing a good deal of plot elements into 96 minutes. Full disclosure, I’ve neither read the original novel, nor seen any of the other filmed adaptations. Obviously I can’t comment on the nature of its faithfulness to the source, but I will say Eyre runs out of steam after we learn the primary secret of Thornfield. Jane’s comings and goings are a bit scattershot the way they’re presented, losing sight somewhat of what was a very hard-earned romantic relationship between she and Rochester. The wrap-up is naggingly pat, but not to the point where it keeps Jane Eyre from being an involving film. Both leads are in top form, with Fontaine (who passed away at age 96 on December 15, 2013) more than holding her own against the domineering Welles.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray offers a passable high definition image. A message on the Screen Archives website reminds us that Jane Eyre has been brought to Blu-ray using the “best source material available.” While I don’t doubt that, the source print was apparently not in great shape. Imperfections abound and contrast is inconsistent. We never really get deep, solid black levels. It’s not a difficult presentation to watch, it just leaves something to be desired. The DTS-HD MA mono track is effective. Dialogue is clean and clear. Bernard Herrmann’s stirring score is also well served by the simple mix.

Speaking of Herrmann’s score, it’s presented as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Two commentaries supplement Eyre, the first features Welles biographer Joseph McBride and actress Margaret O’Brien. The second is a new track with Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith and film historians (and Twilight Time team members) Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. There’s also a solid making-of featurette, “Locked in the Tower: The Men Behind Jane Eyre,” and a 1944 propaganda film directed by Robert Stevenson, Know Your Ally: Britain.

Twilight Time’s Jane Eyre Blu-ray is a strictly limited edition, with only 3,000 copies pressed. For ordering information, visit Screen Archives.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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