Wide Sargasso Sea
1993, NC-17, 98 min. Directed by John Duigan. Starring Karina Lombard, Nathaniel Parker, Claudia Robinson, Rowena King, Michael York, Rachel Ward.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 4, 1993
Ever wonder in Jane Eyre how the first Mrs. Rochester went mad and came to be locked away in that tower? Author Jean Rhys wondered about such things and that curiosity generated her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea which acts as a literary prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Taking the scant info provided by Brontë, Rhys postulates a turbulent marriage in 1840s Jamaica between the cash-poor but land-rich Antoinette Cosway (Lombard) and the fortune-hunting Englishman, Mr. Rochester (Parker). Rochester's initial response to his exotic young creole wife, herself the child of an alcoholic father and insane mother, is one of fear and distrust. The lush Jamaican vegetation, the predominantly black population, the resentful whispers of the recently freed slaves, the practice of obeah -- the island sorcery -- and the constantly pounding drumbeat all assault the staid Englishman's sensibilities. His apprehension gives way to unbridled lust which the newly married couple indulges frequently. (The film's NC-17 rating seems due more to a couple seconds of exposed Rochester penis than from anything that transpires during the couple's mildly steamy lovemaking. After a time Rochester's passion turns to revulsion as his wild, untamed creature arouses in him more fright than passion. The movie's a real gothic potboiler, more along the lines, however, of a Dark Shadows than a Jane Eyre. While successfully sultry, it never seems to progress beyond that point so that there's a preponderance of things like jungle drums and underwater seaweed shots and rolling thunder cutaways that enhance mood without ever adding anything to the narrative. A slew of information about Antoinette's family background is recounted too hurriedly at the film's beginning also. Damping the story's rich potential regarding issues of colonialism and exploitation, the movie becomes more a meditation on fecundity and sexual delirium. Director Duizan (Flirting) falls into too many clichés about the taming of the untamable without adding any new insights. Model-turned-actress Lombard has a voluptuously exotic allure though her acting skills appear a bit limited. The rest of the cast shines in their roles (particularly Robinson as the imperious nanny and sorceress and King as Rochester's inevitable native temptation). Despite its poetic tendencies which are continually hamstrung by prosaic execution, Wide Sargasso Sea is a lushly evocative work that embeds itself in your imagination and ripens over time.