Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

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“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

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“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

Considering the popularity of the Brontë sisters, it is not surprising that there have been considerable movie, stage and television adaptations of their novels. I discovered there have been at least fifteen (15) adaptations of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights”

I might as well be frank . . . I am not a major fan of the novel. I never have been. I do not dislike it, but I have always preferred the famous novels of the author’s two sisters – namely “Jane Eyre” (1847) by Charlotte Brontë and Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. For some reason, “Wuthering Heights” depresses the hell out of me. I have nothing against works of fiction laced with tragedy. But the heavy barrage of emotional and physical abuse, revenge, and over-the-top passion has always seemed a bit too much for me. Due to my less-than-enthusiastic regard for Ms. Brontë’s novel, I have always been reluctant to watch any of the television or movie adaptations, with the exception of one – the 1939 movie produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

Directed by William Wyler, and starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” told the story of the passionate and doomed love story between one Catherine Earnshaw, the daughter of a Yorkshire landowner and an orphaned Gypsy boy named Heathcliff. The story opens with Mr. Earnshaw introducing Heathcliff to his family – Cathy and her brother, Hindley – at Wuthering Heights. While Cathy immediately befriends Heathcliff, Hindley becomes jealous of his father and sister’s high regard of the newcomer. Heathcliff’s pleasant life with the Earnshaw family ends when Mr. Earnshaw dies and a resentful Hindley forces him to become one of the family’s servants.

Despite Heathcliff’s new status within the Earnshaw family, his close relationship with Cathy remains close. Some eight to ten years later, the now adult pair have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Penniston’s Crag. One night, Cathy and Heathcliff are out when they discover the Earnshaws’ neighbors, the Lintons, giving a party at the Grange. After climbing the garden wall, Cathy is attacked by a dog. The Lintons take Cathy in to care for her and Heathcliff is ordered to leave the Grange. Cathy becomes close with Edgar Linton and entranced by his wealth and glamour, while Edgar falls in love with her. When Edgar decides to propose marriage to Cathy, his action leads to a major fallout between Cathy and Heathcliff, the latter’s departure for United States, his return, jealousy, obsession and in the end, tragedy.

As far as I know, the 1939 film eliminated the second half of Brontë’s novel that centered on the generation featuring Heathcliff and Cathy’s children. This elimination has led many fans of the novel to dismiss this version as a poor adaptation. Well, to each his own. I have never read Brontë’s novel. And this is probably why I have such difficulty in dismissing “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” as unworthy of the novel. The only way I can judge the movie is on its own merits. And quite frankly, I believe it is one of the better costume dramas to be released during Hollywood’s Studio Era.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn assigned his top director, William Wyler, to helm the movie. And Wyler did a superb job. Thanks to his direction, “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” turned out to be an atmospheric and well paced movie filled with superb performances by the cast. Wyler utilized the talents of cinematographer Gregg Toland, along with art designers James Basevi and Alexander Toluboff to re-create the novel’s setting – the brooding Yorkshire moors with exquisite details.

The movie’s most controversial aspect turned out to be Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s screenplay. Many present-day critics believe that the two screenwriters took the bite out of Brontë’s novel by romanticizing Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship. Literary critic John Sutherland accused Wyler, Hecht and MacArthur of portraying Cathy as a more passive character, willing to accept Heathcliff’s abuse. Personally, I cannot help but wonder how he came to this conclusion. My recent viewing of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” recalls a capricious and manipulative Cathy unable to hold back her scorn of Heathcliff in the face of the Lintons’ wealth and glamour; and a Cathy more than determined to prevent Heathcliff and Isabella Linton’s marriage. Not once do I recall a passive Cathy willing to accept abuse from Heathcliff.

Other critics of the movie have also accused Wyler and the two screenwriters of robbing Heathcliff the opportunity to seek revenge against Cathy and the Linton family by deleting the second half of the novel. These same critics seemed to have forgotten that a good deal of the movie’s second half focused not only on Heathcliff’s return to England, but also his efforts to get revenge on both the Earnshaw and Linton families. He did this by acquiring Wuthering Heights from an increasingly dissolute Hindley Earnshaw and more importantly, seeking Isabella Linton’s hand for marriage. The latter finally reached its mark as far as Cathy was concerned. The emotional damage from Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella led to Cathy’s death and tragedy. The biggest criticism that emerged from “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was Samuel Goldwyn’s decision to set the story in the mid-Victorian era, instead of the novel’s late 18th and early 19th centuries setting. It is believed that Goldwyn made this decision either because he preferred this period in costumes or he was simply trying to save a buck by using old Civil War era costumes. Personally, I could not care less. The novel’s setting was merely accelerated by five to six decades. And since “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” did not utilize any overt historical facts in its plot, I see no reason to get upset over the matter.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” went into production as a vehicle for actress Merle Oberon, who was a contract player at Goldwyn Studios. When Laurence Olivier, her co-star from 1938’s “THE DIVORCE OF LADY X”, was cast as Heathcliff, he campaigned for lover Vivian Leigh to replace Oberon as Catherine Earnshaw. Olivier’s efforts failed and Oberon kept her job. Many critics believe that Leigh would have done a better job. I refuse to accept or reject that belief. However, I was very impressed by Oberon’s performance. She did an excellent job in capturing Cathy’s capricious and shallow nature. Although Oberon had a few moments of hammy acting, she was not as guilty of this as two of her co-stars. I find it rather disappointing that she failed to earn an Academy Award nomination. Her scene with Geraldine Fitzgerald (in which Cathy tries to dampen Isabella’s interest in Heathcliff) and the famous soliloquy that ended with Cathy’s “I am Heathcliff” declaration should have earned her a nomination.

Laurence Olivier made his Hollywood debut in the role of the Gypsy orphan-turned-future owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff. Olivier harbored a low opinion of Hollywood and screen acting in general. But Wyler’s exhausting style of directing and tutelage enabled Olivier to drop his penchant for stage theatrics and perform for the camera. Mind you, I do not believe Wyler was not completely successful with Olivier. The actor still managed to display hints of hammy acting in his performance. And he did not seem that successful in his portrayal of a Heathcliff in his late teens or early twenties, in compare to Oberon, who seemed successful in portraying Cathy in that same age group. Regardless, Olivier gave a first-rate performance, and managed to earn the first of his ten Academy Award nominations.

Another performer who earned an Academy Award nomination was Geraldine Fitzgerald, for her performance as Isabella Linton. I cannot deny that she deserved the nomination. Fitzgerald gave a memorable performance as the passionate, naive and outgoing Isabella, who found herself trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man that harbored no love for her. However, I believe that like Olivier, she was guilty of a few moments of histronic acting. I could never accuse David Niven of such a thing. The actor gave a solid performance as the quietly loving, yet privileged Edgar Linton. Flora Robson was superb as the story’s narrator and Cathy Earnshaw’s maid, Ellen Dean. And both Niven and Robson proved to be the production’s backbone by being the only cast members that managed to refrain from any histronic acting altogether. I can also say the same about Hugh Williams’ portrayal of the embittered and dissolute Hindley Earnshaw. Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway and Miles Mander also gave fine support.

I realize that “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” will never be a favorite of the fans of Brontë’s novel. But as a movie fan, I cannot look down at this production. Thanks to William Wyler’s direction, Gregg Toland’s photography, solid adaptation by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and superb acting from a cast led by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; it is quite easy to see why it is considered as one of the best examples of Old Hollywood during one of its best years – 1939. I guess I will always be a fan.

“EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1992) Review

 

“EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1992) Review

I honestly do not know what to say about “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. I had heard so much about this adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Yet, I have never seen it in the movie theaters. In fact, it took me a long time to finally come around viewing it. When I finally saw it, the movie produced a reaction I did not expect to experience. 

Unlike the more famous 1939 William Wyler film, “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” proved to be an adaptation of Brontë’s entire novel. Unlike the famous Wyler film or the 1847 novel, this movie was set during the second half of the eighteenth century. Directed by Peter Kosminsky, the movie began with the arrival of a gentleman named Lockwood, who seeks to rent a Yorkshire estate called Thrushcross Grange from its owner – a middle-aged man named Heathcliff. The latter lives at another local estate called Wuthering Heights. While visiting Wuthering Heights, Lockwood has an encounter with what he believes is a ghost . . . the ghost of a woman named Cathy. This drives Heathcliff racing out of the manor house and housekeeper Nelly Dean to recount to Lockwood on what drove Heathcliff to behave in that manner.

The story jumps back to some twenty to thirty years later in which an earlier owner of Wuthering Heights, Thomas Earnshaw, returns from a trip to Liverpool with a young boy who or who might not be a gypsy in tow named Heathcliff. The latter manages to befriend Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine “Cathy”. However, Earnshaw’s son Hindley develops a deep dislike of the newcomer. He fears that Heathcliff has replaced him in his father’s affections. Several years later, Earnshaw dies. Hindley marries a woman named Frances and becomes the new owner of Wuthering Heights. He allows Heathcliff to remain at Wuthering Heights . . . but only as a servant. The one bright spot in Heathcliff’s life is his friendship with Cathy, which has developed into a romance between the pair. When Cathy and Heathcliff discover the Earnshaws’ neighbors, the Lintons, giving a party at Thrushcross Grange, Cathy is attacked by a dog when she and Heathcliff climb the garden wall. The Lintons take Cathy in to care for her and order Heathcliff to leave the Grange. Cathy becomes entranced by Edgar Linton, along his wealth and glamour; while Edgar falls in love with her. Edgar’s marriage proposal to Cathy and her acceptance leads to a major fallout between her and Heathcliff. The latter disappears without a trace for several years. And his return leads to jealousy, obsession and in the end, tragedy for him, the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

“EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” proved to be rather popular with moviegoers. Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the brooding Heathcliff and the film’s adaptation of the entire novel left this film highly regarded by fans of period dramas. On the other hand, the majority of films critics were not impressed with this movie. Why they felt this way about the movie? I have no idea. I have yet to read a single review written by a professional film critics. I am simply aware that “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was not that popular with them. While many movie fans are inclined to quickly accept the views of film critics, I decided to see the movie for myself and form my own judgement.

When I first saw this film, I was surprised that it was set during the late 1700s and around the beginning of the 1800s. James Acheson, who had designed the Oscar winning costume designs for 1988’s “DANGEROUS LIAISONS”, created the costumes for “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. And frankly, I believe he did a marvelous job in re-creating the fashions for the movie’s setting as shown in the images below:

 

Another aspect of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” that impressed me proved to be the performances. I do not know what led Peter Kominsky and the Casting Department to choose Ralph Fiennes for the role of Heathcliff, but I believe that fate or something divine led them to select the right actor for this role. Honestly, he did a fantastic job in portraying such an emotionally and morally chaotic character like Heathcliff. Some people were a bit put off by Juliette Binoche as both Cathy Henshaw and Catherine Linton. They had a trouble with her slight French accent. I have to be honest . . . I could barely notice her accent. But I thought she did an excellent job in portraying Cathy’s vain and capricious personality, along with daughter Catherine’s no-nonsense, yet compassionate nature. The movie also featured some excellent performances from Sophie Ward as Isabella Linton, Simon Shepherd as Edgar Linton, Janet McTeer as Nelly Dean, Jeremy Northam as Hindley Earnshaw, Jason Riddington as Hareton Earnshaw, and Jonathan Firth as Linton Heathcliff. Overall, I thought the cast was pretty solid.

And yet . . . I must confess that I am not a fan of this adaptation of Brontë’s 1847 novel. I honestly do not care that the movie was a faithful adaptation that covered not only Heathcliff and Cathy’s generation, but that of the younger generation. I am not a fan. One of my problems with this film was Kominsky’s direction. He did a fine job in directing the actors. But I found his overall direction of the film rather problematic. Quite frankly, I thought the entire movie seemed like a rush job. Perhaps he was hampered by Anne Devlin’s screenplay. The latter tried to shove Brontë’s entire narrative into a movie with a running time of one hour and forty-five minutes. I am sorry, but that did not work. Watching this film, I finally understood why William Wyler only shot the novel’s first half back in 1939.

Another major problem I had with the film is Brontë’s novel . . . or the second half. I am not a major fan of the 1847 novel. But if it had ended liked Wyler’s movie, I would have been satisfied. Personally, I have always found the second half of the novel rather boring; especially with Heathcliff running around like some damn mustache-twirling villain. And the taint of borderline incest certainly did not help, considering that Catherine Linton spent most of her screen time being torn between two men that happened to be her first cousins.

My final problems with “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” are rather aesthetic. As much as I enjoyed James Acheson’s costumes, I cannot say the same about the hairstyles worn by the cast. Exactly who was in charge of the film’s hairstyles? Because that person seemed unable to surmise that the film was set in the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Some of the cast had modern hairstyles. And a good deal of the women cast members looked as if they were wearing rather bouffant wigs. One last problem I had with “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was Mike Southon’s cinematography. I suppose the 1990s ushered in the age of naturalistic lighting for period dramas. The problem is that I could barely see a damn thing! Especially in the movie’s interior shots. I find it rather difficult to enjoy a movie or television production in which the lighting is so dark that I found myself depending more on the dialogue than the images on the screen. Worse, even some of the exterior shots seemed a little darker than usual. Was this a case of Southon adding to the film’s Gothic setting? I have no idea. And honestly, I do not care, considering that . . . again, I could barely see a damn thing.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. I really do. There were some aspects of the film that I liked – namely James Acheson’s costumes and some first-rate performances from a cast led by Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. But I found the movie’s running time too short for an effective adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel. Either the film should have been longer . . . or it should have followed the example of the 1939 film and only adapt the novel’s first half. Overall, I found this movie rather disappointing.

“JANE EYRE” (1973) Review

 

“JANE EYRE” (1973) Review

When I began this article, it occurred to me that I was about to embark upon the review of the sixth adaptation I have seen of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. I have now seen six adaptations of “Jane Eyre” and plan to watch at least one or two more. Meanwhile, I would like to discuss my views on the 1973 television adaptation.

For the umpteenth time, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a young English girl, who is forced to live with her unlikable aunt-by-marriage and equally unlikable cousins. After a clash with her Cousin John Reed, Jane Eyre is sent to Lowood Institution for girls. Jane spends eight years as a student and two as a teacher at Lowood, until she is able to acquire a position as governess at a Yorkshire estate called Thornfield Hall. Jane discovers that her charge is a young French girl named Adele Varens, who happens to be the ward of Jane’s employer and Thornfield’s owner, Edward Rochester. Before she knows it, Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester. But the path toward romantic happiness proves to be littered with pitfalls.

After watching “JANE EYRE” . . . or least this version, I hit the Web to learn about the prevailing view toward the 1973 miniseries. I got the impression that a number of Brontë fans seemed to regard it as the best version of the 1847 novel. I can honestly say that I do not agree with this particular view. Mind you, the miniseries seemed to be a solid adaptation. Screenwriter Robin Chapman and director Joan Craft managed to translate Brontë’s tale to the screen without too many drastic changes. Yes, there are one or two changes that I found questionable. But I will get to them later. More importantly, due to the entire production being stretch out over the course of five episode, I thought it seemed well balanced.

I was surprised to see that “JANE EYRE” was set during the decade of the 1830s. It proved to be the second (or should I say first) adaptation to be set in that period. The 1983 television adaptation was also set during the 1830s. Did this bother me? No. After all, Brontë’s novel was actual set during the reign of King George III (1760-1820) and I have yet to stumble across an adaptation from this period. Both this production and the 1983 version do come close. But since“Jane Eyre” is not a historical fiction novel like . . . “Vanity Fair”, I see no reason why any movie or television production has to be set during the time period indicated in the story.

The movie also featured some solid performances. I was surprised to see Jean Harvey in the role of Jane’s Aunt Reed. The actress would go on to appear in the 1983 adaptation of the novel as Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. As for her portrayal of Aunt Reed, I thought Harvey did a solid job, even if I found her slightly theatrical at times. Geoffrey Whitehead gave an excellent performance as Jane’s later benefactor and cousin, St. John Rivers. However, I had the oddest feeling that Whitehead was slightly too old for the role, despite being only 33 to 34 years old at the time. Perhaps he just seemed slightly older. The 1973 miniseries would prove to be the first time Edward de Souza portrayed the mysterious Richard Mason. He would later go on to repeat the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 adaptation. Personally, I feel he was more suited for the role in this adaptation and his excellent performance conveyed this. I do not know exactly what to say about Brenda Kempner’s portrayal of Bertha Mason. To be honest, I found her performance to be something of a cliché of a mentally ill woman. For me, the best performance in the entire miniseries came from Stephanie Beachum, who portrayed Jane’s potential rival, the haughty and elegant Blanche Ingram. I do not think I have ever come across any actress who portrayed Blanche as both “haughty” and lively at the same time. Beachum did an excellent job at portraying Blanche as a likable, yet off-putting and arrogant woman.

Many fans of the novel do not seem particularly impressed by Sorcha Cusack’s portrayal of the title character. A good number of them have accused the actress of being unable to convey more than a handful of expressions. And they have accused her of being too old for the role at the ripe age of 24. Personally . . . I disagree with them. I do not regard Cusack’s performance as one of the best portrayals of Jane Eyre. But I thought she did a pretty damn good job, considering this was her debut as an actress. As for her “limited number of expressions”, I tend to regard this accusation as a bit exaggerated. Yes, I found her performance in the scenes featuring Jane’s early time at Thornfield a bit too monotone. But I feel that she really got into the role, as the production proceeded. On the other hand, many of these fans regard Michael Jayston’s portrayal of Edward Rochester as the best. Again, I disagree. I am not saying there was something wrong with his performance. I found it more than satisfying. But I found it difficult to spot anything unique about his portrayal, in compare to the other actors who had portrayed the role before and after him. There were a few moments when his performance strayed dangerously in hamminess. Also, I found his makeup a bit distracting, especially the . . . uh, “guyliner”.

The production values for “JANE EYRE” seemed solid. I felt a little disappointed that interior shots seemed to dominate the production, despite the exterior scenes of Renishaw Hall, which served as Thornfield. Some might argue that BBC dramas of the 1970s and 1980s were probably limited by budget. Perhaps so, but I have encountered other costumed productions of that period that have used more exterior shots. I had no problem with Roger Reece’s costume designs. But aside from the outstanding costumes for Stephanie Beacham, there were times when most of the costumes looked as if they came from a warehouse.

Earlier, I had commented on the minimal number of drastic changes to Brontë’s novel. I am willing to tolerate changes in the translation from novel to television/movie, if they were well done. Some of the changes did not bother me – namely Bessie’s visit to Jane at Lowood and the quarrel between Eliza and Georgiana Reed, during Jane’s visit at Gateshead Hall. But there were changes and omissions I noticed that did not exactly impress me. I was disappointed that the miniseries did not feature Jane’s revelation to Mrs. Fairfax about her engagement to Mr. Rochester. I was also disappointed that “JANE EYRE” did not feature Jane begging in a village before her meeting with the Rivers family. Actually, many other adaptations have failed to feature this sequence as well . . . much to my disappointment. And I was a little put off by one scene in which Mr. Rochester tried to prevent Jane from leaving Thornfield following the aborted wedding ceremony with over emotional kisses on the latter’s lips. Not face . . . but lips. I also did not care for the invented scenes that included a pair of doctors telling Reverend Brocklehurst that he was responsible for the typhus outbreak at Lowood. What was the point in adding this scene? And what was the point in adding a scene in which two society ladies discussed John Reed during a visit Thornfield?

Overall, “JANE EYRE” proved to be a solid adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, thanks to director Joan Craft and screenwriter Robin Chapman. Everything about this production struck me as “solid”, including the performances from a cast led by Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston. Only Stephanie Beachum’s portrayal of Blanche Ingram stood out for me. The production values struck me as a bit pedestrian. And I was not that thrilled by a few omissions and invented scenes by Chapman. But in the end, I liked the miniseries. I did not love it, but I liked it.

“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

 

“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

Many fans of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, are aware that numerous (probably over twenty) television and movie adaptations of it had been made over the past several decades. While perusing the Internet, I was surprised to discover that the opinion of the 1943 adaption seemed to be extremely divided. Fans either regard it as the best adaptation or the worst. There seemed to be no middle ground.

As many know, “JANE EYRE” told the story of young 19th century English orphan who is forced to live at the Yorkshire estate of her widowed aunt-by-marriage, Aunt Reed. After a recent altercation between niece and aunt, the latter sends Jane Eyre to be educated at an all-girls school operated by a tyrannical and religious zealot named Mr. Lowood. Jane spends eight years at the school as a student and two years as a teacher. She eventually leaves Lowood School after she is hired as a governess for Adèle Varens, the French-born ward of a mysterious landowner named Mr. Edward Rochester. Not long after her arrival at Thornfield Hall, the Rochester estate, Jane meets her enigmatic employer. It does not take long before Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolve from employee/employer to friends, before it eventually becomes romantic. However, a possible romantic rival for Jane and a secret in Thornfield’s attic prove to be major obstacles in the road to romance for the young governess and her employer.

So . . . how does “JANE EYRE” hold up after 71 to 72 years? Actually, I believe it holds up pretty well. I thought director Robert Stevenson and the screenplay he co-wrote with John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, and Henry Koster did a solid job in translating Brontë’s novel to the screen. Many critics and movie fans have noted that this adaptation seemed to have convey the novel’s Gothic atmosphere a lot stronger than other versions. I supposed one has cinematographer George Barnes, production designer William L. Pereira and set decorator Thomas Little to thank. However, I recently learned it was Orson Welles (who not only served as leading man, but also an uncredited producer) who had convinced Stevenson and his fellow co-producers William Goetz and Kenneth Macgowan to inject more Gothic visuals into the movie. I could not say that René Hubert’s costume designs contributed to the movie’s Gothic atmosphere. But I was impressed by how Hubert’s costumes reflected the movie’s early 1840s setting, as shown in the images below:

338848.1 Fontaine, Joan (Jane Eyre)_01

I certainly had no problems with how the movie handled Jane’s story through most of the film. From the opening scene in which the leading character found herself harassed by the Reed film to her disrupted wedding to Edward Rochester. I usually find it difficult to endure the Lowood School scenes in other adaptations of Brontë’s novels. But I cannot say the same about this adaptation. I really had no problem with it. It could be that I was so fascinated by the performances of Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Daniell that I completely forgot that I was watching one of my least favorite sequences in the story. And of course, the best part of“JANE EYRE” remained the growing friendship and romance between the titled character and Rochester. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Rochester’s courtship of Blanche Ingram during his house party and Jane’s confession of her love for him.

Although I was impressed by how Stevenson and the film’s other screenwriters handled Brontë’s tale up to Jane and Rochester’s disastrous wedding ceremony, I could not say the same about the rest of the film. In fact, it suffered from the same narrative problem that plagued several other adaptations – a weak finale. First of all, this is the only adaptation in which Jane never meets the Rivers siblings – St. John, Diana and Mary. She does meet a Doctor Rivers, who first treated Jane when she was a Lowood student. Instead of seeking refuge with the trio, Jane returns to Gateshead Hall, the home of her dying Aunt Reed. Following her aunt’s death, Jane reunites with Rochester. That is it. And I hate to say this, but the entire sequence – between Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall to her return – seemed very rushed and unsatisfying.

I also have another major problem with the movie – its Gothic elements. There were times when these elements served the mysterious aspects of the movie very well. However, a good deal of these “Gothic touches” struck me as heavy handed . . . to the point that they ended up annoying me. This was apparent in Jane’s first meeting with Rochester, with so much fog swirling around the pair that at times they seemed almost hidden. The worst aspect of these “Gothic touches” occurred in the scene in which Jane and Rochester confessed their love for one another. The moment the pair sealed their engagement with a kiss, a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck a nearby log. I mean . . . come on! Really?

A good number of critics and movie fans did not seem particularly impressed by Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Jane Eyre. I never understood the complaints. I thought she did an excellent job. More importantly, her portrayal of the passionate, yet introverted Jane seemed spot on. What were these critics expecting? An over-the-top performance by Fontaine? Jane Eyre is not an overtly emotional character – at least as an adult. However, I am happy to note that Fontaine certainly had a strong screen chemistry with her leading man, Orson Welles. Many have stated that Welles pretty much dominated the movie. To me, that is like saying every actor who has portrayed Edward Rochester overshadowed the actresses who have portrayed Jane. Personally, I thought Welles’ enigmatic and quick-witted portrayal of Rochester complimented Fontaine’s more introspective performance rather well. I guess these fans and critics did not want balance . . . just two very theatrical performances.

The other performances in the movie struck me as first-rate. Agnes Moorehead, who was part of Welles’ Mercury Theater company before her arrival in Hollywood, portrayed Jane’s haughty Aunt Reed. And I must say that she did an excellent job in portraying the character with a not-too-shabby English accent. Henry Daniell was equally impressive as the tyrannical head of Jane’s school, Mr. Lowood. But I was really impressed by Margaret O’Brien, who did a remarkable job as Rochester’s French ward, Adèle Varens. I would not know an authentic French accent, if I was stuck in the middle of Paris. But I must say that O’Brien’s accent was just as good as the other young actresses who portrayed Adèle. And she gave such a charming performance . . . at the age of six.

But O’Brien was not the only child star who gave an excellent performance. Peggy Ann Garner was equally impressive as the young Jane Eyre, who had no qualms about butting heads with the haughty Reed family. Also in the film was a young Elizabeth Taylor, who gave a mesmerizing performance as Jane’s doomed young friend, Helen Burns. I was surprised to discover that Hillary Brooke, who portrayed Blanche Ingram, was an American actress. I thought she was very convincing as the charmingly bitchy and very English Blanche. The movie also featured solid performances from Sara Allgood, John Sutton, Edith Barrett and Barbara Everest.

So . . . do I feel that “JANE EYRE” is the best or worst adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel? Honestly? I would say neither. Yes, there were times I could barely deal with the movie’s over-the-top Gothic atmosphere. And yes, I found the last quarter of the film both weak and rushed. But overall, I would say that it is a pretty good film. And I believe that it still holds up rather well after 71 to 72 years.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (2009) Review

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (2009) Review

I have no idea how many times Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights” was adapted for the movie or television screens. I do know that I have seen at least three versions of the novel. Although the 2009 television adaptation is not the latest to have been made, it is the most recent I have seen.

The beginning of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” veers away from Brontë’s novel in two ways. One, the television production is set forty years later than the novel. Instead of beginning at the turn of the 19th century, this movie or miniseries begins in the early 1840s before it jumps back thirty years. And two, the character of Mr. Lockwood, who appeared in both Brontë’s novel and William Wyler’s 1939 version, did not make an appearance in this production. The novel and the 1939 film used Earnshaw housekeeper Nelly Dean’s recollections to Lockwood as a flashback device. This production also uses Nelly as a flashback device, only she ends up revealing her memories to Cathy Linton, the daughter of Edgar Linton and Catherine Earnshaw . . . and Heathcliff’s new daughter-in-law.

Do not get me wrong. I personally had no problems with these changes. With or without the Lockwood character, Nelly Dean is used as a flashback. There were other changes from the novel. Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights and Yorkshire and returned three-and-a-half years later, six months after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar. In the 2009 production, Heathcliff returned on the very day of their wedding. Well . . . I could deal with that. What I found interesting is that screenwriter Don Bowker seemed dismissive of the 1939 film adaptation, claiming that the movie’s screenwriter succeeded because “with classic Hollywood ruthlessness they filleted out the Cathy/Heathcliff story and ditched the rest of the plot. It’s a great film but it does the novel a disservice.” I realize that many fans of Brontë’s novel would probably agree with him. I do not. Wyler’s film may not have been as faithful as this production, but I do not accept Bowker’s view that it “filleted out” the Catherine/Heathcliff story or did the novel any disservice. This version included the second generation story arc and to be quite honest, I was not that impressed.

There were some problems I had with this production. I also found myself slightly confused by the passage of time between Heathcliff’s departure and his return. I also felt equally confused by the passage of time between young Cathy’s first meeting with Heathcliff and her marriage to the latter’s son, Linton. The Nelly Dean character barely seemed to age. And once the miniseries or movie refocused upon the second generation, the story seemed to rush toward the end. Both Bowker and director Coky Giedroyc seemed reluctant to fully explore Heathcliff’s relationships with his son Linton, his daughter-in-law Cathy and his ward Hareton. I could probably say the same about the friendship and developing romance between the younger Cathy and Hareton.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” is a visually charming production. But I can honestly say that it did not blow my mind. There was nothing particularly eye-catching or memorable about the production staff’s work, whether it was Ulf Brantås’ photography, Grenville Horner’s production designs or Fleur Whitlock’s art direction. If one were to ask my opinion on the miniseries’ score, I could not give an answer, simply because I did not find it memorable. The most noteworthy aspect of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, aside from its writing, direction and the cast is Fleur Whitlock’s costume designs. I admire the way she made every effort to adhere to early 19th fashion from the Regency decade to the beginning of the Victorian era.

I had very little problems with the cast. Tom Hardy – more or less- gave a fine performance as the brooding Heathcliff. He certainly did an excellent job of carrying the production. My only complaint is that once his Heathcliff returned to Wuthering Heights as a wealthy man, there were times when he seemed to portray his character as a comic book super villain. His later performance as Heathcliff brought back negative reminders of his performance as Bane in the most recent Batman movie, “THE DARK KNIGHT”. I was also impressed by Charlotte Riley’s portrayal of Catherine Earnshaw, the emotional and vibrant young woman who attracted the love of both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. Riley gave a very skillful and intelligent performance. I only wish that she had not rushed into exposing Catherine’s jealousy of Heathcliff’s romance with her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton. Another remarkable aspect of Riley’s performance is that she managed to generate chemistry with both Hardy and her other leading man, Andrew Lincoln. Speaking of Lincoln, I felt he gave the best performance in this production. There were no signs of hamminess or badly-timed pacing. More importantly, he did an excellent job of balancing Edgar’s passionate nature and rigid adherence to proper behavior.

I have no complaints regarding the supporting cast. Sarah Lancashire was first-rate as the Earnshaws’ housekeeper, Nelly Dean. I wish she had a stronger presence in the production, but I am more inclined to blame the director and screenwriter. Burn Gorman did an excellent job of balancing Hindley Earnshaw’s jealous behavior and fervent desire for his father’s love and attention. Rosalind Halstead gave a steady performance as Edgar’s sister and Heathcliff’s wife, Isabella Linton. However, I must admit that I was particularly impressed by one scene in which her character discovers the true nature of Heathcliff’s feelings for her. As for the rest of the cast – all gave solid and competent performances, especially Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Earnshaw and Rebecca Night as Cathy Linton.

Overall, I enjoyed “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. Mind you, I believe it had its flaws. And I could never regard it superior to the 1939 movie, despite being slightly more faithful. But I would certainly have no troubles re-watching for years to come, thanks to director Coky Giedroyc and a cast led by Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

jezebel2

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.