Our Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
The local branch of the library had an audio copy of Jane of Lantern Hill read by Mairon Bennett when I was a child. I remember listening to it hundreds of times over the course of a half dozen years, until the story of Jane Stuart became as familiar and fond to me as the tales of Anne Shirley and Christy Huddleston. You can imagine my disappointment as a precocious nine year old in viewing this film, only to realize in despair that it only bore a vague resemblance to the wonderful novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
During the illness of her ailing mother, Victoria Jane Stuart (Mairon Bennett) is sent to live with her domineering and aristocratic grandmother. Despised by the cruel children at the elite private school in which she is enrolled and tormented relentlessly by her mean-spirited cousin, Jane is drawn to the plight of the unfortunate Jodie Turner (Sarah Polley), the scullery girl next door. Her cousin goes one step too far and informs Jane that her presumed belief that her father is dead is nothing but a lie to cover up the scandalous separation of her parents. Her father is alive and well on Prince Edward Island, a penniless journalist thought to be involved in a local scandal. Shortly after discerning the truth, a letter comes him insisting that his daughter spend several months on the island so that he might get to know her. Her grandmother believes a legal course of action might be wise, but their lawyer informs them that they have no choice in the matter.
Disconcerted with the thought of meeting her father and in-laws, Jane journeys to Prince Edward Island and there makes the acquaintance of her formidable Aunt Irene (Vivian Reis). The woman seems personable and charming at first, but soon reveals a darker side. Andrew Stuart (Sam Waterston) is eccentric but likable, and after just a few weeks spent with him in the family home of Lantern Hill, Jane cannot understand why her mother would have ever left. Pursuing this mystery further leads her to the mysterious death of a former suitor of her father's. Jodie has found her living conditions intolerable and followed her friend to the island. The two of them unite along with a peculiar old woman (Colleen Dewhurst) to right past wrongs and attempt to bring a broken family together again.
One of the more wonderful things about the novel was the relationship between Jane and her father. It was love at first sight, and she truly bloomed beneath his loving care. The movie takes a bit longer to create this bond but it becomes apparent that she truly does adore him. The acting involved is just lovely. I'm a big fan of Sam Waterston due to his later stint as a prosecutor on the Law & Order series, and it's marvelous to see him in such a charming and adorable role. Andrew is just as I imagined him in the book, right down to the battered hat, humorous little quips, and woolen sweaters. Mairon Bennett also gives a moving performance, but Sarah Polley, best known for her later role in the Avonlea television series, steals the show from her with a fine impersonation of an unruly brat. That being said, I was disappointed in many of the changes made to the storyline. Director Kevin Sullivan has made it very clear that he's an enormous fan of Colleen Dewhurst, and I believe the eerie, witch-like character of Hepzibah (found nowhere in the book) was created merely to invite her presence.
It grants an added level of strangeness to the film, which suffers from melancholy delusions and becomes a ghost story, as Jane is haunted by strange dreams. An entire plot surrounding the accident and the aftermath is created, one that doesn't carry the same feel that the original author intended to create. I found most of the film highly enjoyable, but these sequences detracted from the power at the core of the story, which is a girl's attempts to reunite her parents. The supernatural elements aren't too disturbing but eerie enough to frighten young children -- doors open and shut by themselves, Jane is haunted by creepy dreams, and Hepzibah seems to have the uncanny ability to tell the future. There is no violence or language, and only one mild abuse of deity. If you can pretend the film is not adapted from the novel, you may enjoy it, but fans of the book will be disappointed.