16 February 2002 | Spleen
Stevenson isn't willing to let us forget that his film is based on a book. The first thing we see a leather-bound volume with the title "Jane Eyre" emblazoned on the cover; the book opens to reveal the film's credits exquisitely lettered on the opening pages. We're in danger of falling in love with the book as an object before the story even begins. By the time Joan Fontaine had finished reading out Brönte's opening paragraph, with the sentences themselves before me, I was in no mood to watch the movie - I wanted to go away and read the book.
Yet when it's not reminding us that it's at heart a version of something else, it's a very good film, falling not too far short of David Lean's "Oliver Twist" - which it resembles. Both films were shot almost entirely in the studio, yet don't feel studio-bound; they feel rather as though the directors had managed to find unusually claustrophobic out-of-door (or, in Lean's case, urban) locations. In both films a portion of every frame is consumed by impenetrable shadow. (Yet "Eyre" is detailed, and makes the best possible use of every frame.) Both films take place around in a callous England of the 1920s. (I got the impression that if Brönte's characters had for some reason gone to London they would have encountered Dickens's, although this impression was destroyed when the rich Londoners visit Rochester's castle.) Both films manage to be sentimental in an agreeable way. Both have excellent musical scores. In fact, this may be Herrmann's best score of the 1940s, certainly better than the one he wrote for "Citizen Kane", which is seems better than it is because the film as a whole is a masterpiece.
If you can, make sure you see a print with a pristine soundtrack. Orson Welles isn't always easy to understand.