Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) tells us she was born in 1820 and very soon orphaned, sent to live with her aunt Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead) in a mansion house she detested, largely because of the poor treatment she received there. Nobody sympathised with her except the maid Bessie (Sara Allgood), so when the head of the Lowood Institution for girls, Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) arrived one day to offer Jane the chance to go with him and live there, the little girl jumped at the chance. But her luck was wanting, and she did not know that her misery was about to continue...
All Jane wants is for someone to love her, and she finds affection thin on the ground in this, possibly the best adaptation of the celebrated Charlotte Brontë novel. The way to approach this, the filmmakers evidently thought, was to play up the Gothic elements to the extent that you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a horror movie, and apparently much of the blame for that could be shouldered by the co-star, Orson Welles, who brought brooding into a new dimension as Mr Rochester. Robert Stevenson may have directed it, Aldous Huxley may have had a hand in the script, but it was Welles whose signature appeared to be on it if you looked closely enough.
In truth, the film begins strongly and gradually winds down, a couple of highlights excepted, but the power of those opening scenes, with the abject injustice meted out to the young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) have a lasting impression. The only friend she finds as a barrier against her loneliness and neglect is Helen, played by Elizabeth Taylor before stardom struck her soon after, but such is Brocklehurst's cruelty that he ensures Helen catches pneumonia and dies, and all because of his blinkered religious tyranny. Now Jane is left with no one to be her friend, although the local doctor persuades her not to spend the rest of her childhood mourning by Helen's grave and go get herself an education so she can escape Lowood.
So by the time she is eighteen, Jane makes up her mind to pack her bags, much to the disgust of Brocklehurst (Daniell's mastery of villainous roles served him so well in works like these), and gets a job as a governess on the Yorkshire moors. Her charge is a little French girl (Margaret O'Brien with a singular accent), but her father, the mysterious Mr Rochester, is nowhere to be seen. The country house that Jane finds herself in would have been more fitting to Dr Frankenstein on this evidence, but we can attribute that to some magnificent design and stark, shadowy lighting, and the sinister atmosphere grows to be the best aspect of these latter stages. Put that down to the contrasting acting styles of Fontaine and Welles, her meek and mousy, him having to restrain himself from chomping up the scenery.
Not to mention Welles' false nose and what look like layers of fake tan, but then he did like his makeup to be as extensive as possible; don't worry, he's still recognisable. Now that her awful childhood is out of the way, Jane still has her sights set on love, but she knows she cannot compare to those society ladies who flutter around Rochester. What she doesn't know is that Rochester is not prone to being impressed by such girls, mainly because of his dark secret, a secret he keeps in one of the wings of his home which influenced a host of guilt-ridden horrors and thrillers, and was rarely as effective as it was here - that's one of those later highlights. But in the script's rush to keep this down to an hour and a half, the central relationship between Jane and Rochester does not get enough room to blossom, and the glowering nature of the production is so oppressive that the happy ending doesn't convince. Music by Bernard Herrmann.