Wide Sargasso Sea

Missing several things, including the point
John Duigan
Karina Lombard, Nathaniel Parker, Rachel Ward, Michael York
The Setup: 
The story of the madwoman of Jane Eyre.

There's a whole subgenre of fiction that are prequels or retellings of famous literary works, mostly aimed at redressing sexist or racist overtones in the original works, telling them from a different perspective that hopes to illuminate the assumptions of the age in which they were written. One of the better ones is Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the backstory of the madwoman locked in the attic in Jane Eyre, and how she came to be that way. The novel was deep, engrossing, rich and wonderful... but unfortunately I don't remember too much about it other than that. But that's enough to know that this film version of it misses everything about it that made it good.

The DVD allows you to choose between the R-rated and NC-17 versions, so of course I chose the dirty one. This is directed by John Duigan, who also did the early Nicole Kidman film Flirting,, but also the fairly wretched Hugh Grant movie Sirens. and has music by Stuart Copeland, drummer for The Police. We open in 1844 on a plantation in Jamaica. It has fallen into disrepair after the death of its owner, leaving it in the hands of his wife, played by Rachel Ward. Her daughter Antionette is witness to how things are slowly falling into ruin, how the servants are getting surly at this white woman who represents colonial attempts to exploit the fruits of their island, and faces exclusion from her island friends as the native population grows ever more resentful. Mom takes a new husband from England in the form of Michael York, who thinks the servants are just lazy, something a good beating or screaming at will fix. His wife tells him that the servants are growing dangerous, but he thinks they are just harmless and childlike. Well, he finds out differently when they come as a mob to burn the place down. Afterward, mom goes mad, and the husband locks her in an island sanitarium and abandons her for England. She doesn't even recognize Antionette, who is sent to a convent.

Years later, Antionette is a lovely young woman, played by Karina lombard, who has a convincingly sultry manner and unusual face that can beam happily, or fall into stormy, dark and angry depression. She is the subject of an arranged marriage with British fellow Edward, and it may be a while into his presence on the scene that you realize his last name is Rochester. They have a tentative courtship, eventually realizing that they can be happy together, and they move to her house in the mountains, distant from the colonial town near the coast. There they have a lot of sex and everything is hunky-dory for a while, with Antionette saying she's so happy you could kill her, and Edward obligingly willing her to "Die!" while they're having sex.

Okay, that was the first fifty minutes, and the movie is buzzing along nicely. But now--BOOM!--time for conflict! This skanky dude emerges from the mountains with a letter for Edward, in which he tells him that Antionette's mother is still alive, and crazy as a junebug, and guess what? That's going to happen to Antionette, too, because the madness lurks within her. We soon find that this guy claims to be an illegitimate son of mom's first husband, because he was out screwing the native women. Well, this one letter is all it takes for Edward to have a wholesale reversal of feeling for Antionette, and start being creeped out by her, especially her connection to the native peoples, who he supposedly is freaked out by, although we've seen no evidence of that up til now. We are also told that the natives are slowly growing to despise him, and he them, although again, no evidence of that so far. When he returns to the plantation he finds Antionette dancing with the natives, and wearing the dress you see below, prompting you to think "Hmmm, maybe she IS crazy."

Edward asks about her mom, and Antionette says she died in the fire, which Edward thinks is a lie. He vanishes into town for a few days, where we have a few scenes showing that the British all bemoan their presence on the godforsaken island, and wish they were back in England. In her absence, Antionette hits the drink, til her close servant companion, Christophine, who has raised her since childhood, leaves the house, saying the master hates her and she hates him (again, no evidence of this). Suddenly the servants all hate Edward as well, and are being increasingly surly. This is not to mention the passive-aggressive attentions of native tart Amelie, who provides evidence that modern salon perms WERE available in Jamaica back in the day, as she flaunts her wares in front of Edward every chance she gets.

Antionette goes to Christophine and asks for a voodoo love potion, to which Christophine says "No. No! NO!!! Oh, alright" and gives it to her. Edward returns, having had another SUDDEN ABOUT-FACE and wanting to trust and love Antionette again, but oh but too late, she's already given him love potion number 8.5, causing him to make love to her, then realize he's been drugged by this evil, duplicitous woman, and then go out and pork Amelie right out on the porch, within earshot of Antionette. Then he learns that his brother back home has died, and he has inherited the estate. Christophine tells him to just go and leave Antionette on the island, but once he hears whiff that she might later remarry, he says no, he'll take her to England, but don't worry, he'll "care" for her, and we all know what that means.

So she's shipped off to England and installed in the attic, looking crazy just like her mom, to hammer home that this is all history repeating itself. In a second a maid appears and announces with her in earshot that Edward is marrying Jane Eyre, which I believe is supposed to constitute the whallop where we realize that what we've just seen in the story of the madwoman in the attic. Then Antionette says she "knows what she must do," and next thing you know she's escaping, setting the place on fire, and dancing on the roof. The end.

This is one of those movies that seems okay at the beginning, while all the threads are still spinning out, but starts to fall apart in the second half, when none of the strands come together. It's just a massive failure at charting the emotional arc of the characters, which is exactly what the whole story trades on. We never sense Edward's reservations about Antionette, so when he hears ugly gossip about her, it just seems like a sudden change of heart, rather than the confirmation of his suspicions. Similarly with the servants, they just suddenly hate him, and he them, without much sense that this has been building over time. And since the whole project of the novel was a somewhat feminist one, that is redressing the demonization of this woman upstairs without knowledge of her side of the story, this movie has to be seen as somewhat of a failure, as we don't end up with the sense that Antionette was wronged, or is the victim of patriarchal attitudes, but that they're both equally to blame, and she's quite the wingnut anyway.

But it does have a certain exoticism, and an interesting setting and political climate and historical context, which makes it interesting for a while at least. It's just that in the second half one finds that it isn't really coming to anything, and has lost touch with these characters, so one ends at much more of a distance, when one should be growing more involved. So, a bust, but please do read the book. It's not that hard, is reasonably short, and is fascinating, moving and involving in a way this movie misses at nearly every turn.

Should you watch it: 

Not really, unless you've read the novel and want to see how they've messed it up.