Jane Eyre is not my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre, nor is it a strictly faithful one. It relies heavily on its “literary” merits, demonstrated by passages of typed exposition that do not actually appear in the novel (though large parts of the dialogue do). Its 96 minutes necessitate gross cutting of major subplots. And at no time does anyone look remotely like they're outside, in England or anywhere else. But there is much to love about this version, and in many respects is beautifully done.
One of the things I love most about it is, unfortunately, one of its chief problems. That is Orson Welles. As Rochester, Welles throws his considerable weight about Thornfield much as he probably did on set, playing the brooding Byronic heartthrob to about 11. It's not that this is a particularly bad way to play Rochester; there's something rather charming about his own awareness of his complete self-absorption and his dramatic flair matches the high-contrast, gothic atmosphere gorgeously provided by the cinematography and Robert Stevenson's direction. The problem, however, is that Welles so completely dominates the film that it should have been called Edward Rochester. Joan Fontaine's saintly Jane, aside from what might be my favorite young Jane and a few flashes of “spirit” early on, is no match for him as far as our attention is concerned. Despite the similarities, I always considered Jane to be a little more interesting in her own right than the second Mrs. DeWinter, whom Fontaine had played a few years before. Her Jane impresses Rochester with her quiet assertiveness in the face of his pouty ill-temper, then has little to do for the rest of the film but moon about after him despite the fact that Welles seems to make it clear in every scene how much contempt he has for his supposed intended, Blanche Ingram, and how much he values the company of his ward's governess.
Considering the lengths the film goes to to insert a male role model into young Jane's life who teaches her what duty means, this is likely neither Welles' nor Fontaine's fault, but merely the result of my looking back from a more egalitarian position at a film which is perfectly content with a relationship in which one party saves the other through her quietness. I am also likely spoiled by the 2006 miniseries whose longer running time allows for more subtlety and whose actors are able to convey a more complex and motivated relationship.
A few other things mar the film: Welles sounds like the jaded middle-aged man Rochester should be, but due to pressure to present the moviegoing public with a leading man, looks all of his 29 years. The narration informing us that Rochester is a nice man and everything will be okay is completely at odds with the operatic shadows and Bernard Herrmann's score, and it feels as though it was inserted for fear the too-short courting period wouldn't earn the relationship we're supposed to see blossoming between them. But long exchanges between them remain intact, Welles and Fontaine perform admirably among some absolutely gorgeous black and white scenery, and overall it is a satisfying movie, albeit probably not as much for the purist.