WIDE SARGASSO SEA is adapted from Jean Rhys' intriguing speculative "prequel" to Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE, in which Rhys traces the early life of the "madwoman in the attic" of Bronte's gothic classic. Director John Duigan (SIRENS, FLIRTING) has added enough steamy sensuality to his
screen version to earn the film an NC-17 rating, but fails to evoke the dark, disorienting power of Rhys' novel.
Model Karina Lombard (THE FIRM) plays Antoinette Cosway, a Jamaican Creole descended from pirates and slave traders. When some vengeful ex-slaves burn down her family's estate, her unstable mother (Rachel Ward) descends into madness and alcoholism, after also being abandoned by her British
second husband, played by Michael York. (The first Mr. Cosway drank himself to death after the emancipation of the slaves.) This information is withheld from suitor Edward Rochester (Nathaniel Parker) by Antoinette's uncle (Huw Christie Williams), who has brought the wan Rochester from Britain to
take over what's left of his niece's estate.
Rochester is overwhelmed by the lushness and heat of the island, as well as by the exotic beauty and unabashed sexual appetite of his wife. His uneasiness is reinforced by a letter he receives from Antoinette's cousin Daniel (Ben Thomas), informing him that his wife's mother went insane.
Antoinette denies the allegations, and Rochester goes to the British settlement in Spanish Town to regain his bearings. But he now finds himself bored with his countrymen's stuffiness and reserve and heads home, more in love with Antoinette than ever. After a meeting with Daniel, however,
Rochester again asks Antoinette about her mother, and this time she tells him the truth. He turns cold toward her, and she visits her former nanny Christophene (Claudia Robinson), a voodoo practitioner, whom she asks to cast a spell that will rekindle Rochester's passion. The spell works too well.
After Antoinette and Rochester make love, he finds himself unsated and sleepless. Realizing he has been drugged, he seeks out the sexual favors of housemaid Amelie (Rowena King), who has been trying to tempt him since he arrived.
In the wake of this marital rift, Antoinette begins to descend down the same path as her mother did. Rochester liquidates the estate and takes Antoinette back with him to his newly inherited English country home, Thornfield Hall, where she is confined to an ersatz solitary asylum in the attic.
When it becomes known, years later, that Rochester is to marry his governess, Jane Eyre, the house is ravaged by a fire that begins in the attic. The film ends on the image of a solitary figure dancing on the roof in the flames.
WIDE SARGASSO SEA is a sumptuously photographed drama that boasts two lead players as photogenic as its island setting. Yet for all the ravishing shots of the Jamaican countryside, the film fails to evoke the sense of exotic, intoxicating menace that is so central to Rhys' vision. In the novel,
physical action is secondary to what takes place within the minds of the two protagonists. The first half of the novel is narrated by Antoinette, with the point of view shifting to Rochester once he arrives in Jamaica. In the early parts of the film, Antoinette's narrative is problematic, partly
because Lombard's thick accent in her voiceovers renders some of what she says unintelligible. Her story is also chopped back severely, so that viewers unfamiliar with the book might find it hard to piece together what is happening. The problems are confounded when Rochester arrives, with the film
failing to sustain his point of view or to give him much definition as a character. In the book, Rochester is more clearly a villain who is repulsed by Antoinette from the start and actively works at driving her mad, using her illegitimate brother and Amelie as weapons against her sanity. Rhys's
ironic reconfiguration of Bronte portrays Rochester as the more deranged partner, with his own, crazed fear of "otherness" sanctioned by a patriarchal, Eurocentric culture. This is clearly the film Duigan did not want to make. His Rochester is, instead, an average man who arrives mistrustful but
grows to love his new wife, only to have his marriage destroyed by others. This reworking of Rochester's character reduces the power of the film's climax, since his hatred toward Antoinette seems to well up so arbitrarily.
Parker makes the character as convincing as possible under the circumstances. Lombard, however, doesn't quite have the depth to negotiate the equally drastic, though much better motivated, changes in her character. Her performance doesn't really change much, whether she's naked and glowing with
passion (something she's called upon to be rather often), or drunk, haggard, and half-mad. Nonetheless, she conveys a rare combination of ethereality and earthiness that, with the right nurturing, could be parlayed into real stardom. (Nudity, sexual situations, violence.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NC-17
- Review: WIDE SARGASSO SEA is adapted from Jean Rhys' intriguing speculative "prequel" to Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE, in which Rhys traces the early life of the "madwoman in the attic" of Bronte's gothic classic. Director John Duigan (SIRENS, FLIRTING) has added… (more)