New Line // 1993 // 99 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // November 15th, 2004
The mystery of what unfolded before the story of Jane Eyre is finally revealed.
One of the burning questions left after reading Charlotte Brontë's classic 19th-century novel Jane Eyre is what exactly the deal was with Rochester's first wife. This violent madwoman appears suddenly, and her past is never explained to any degree of satisfaction. While leaving it all to the imagination of the reader was no doubt Brontë's intent, my curiosity was left unsatisfied when I finished the novel. We know about Rochester's visit to Jamaica and his subsequent sudden departure, but precious little else. I imagine novelist Jean Rhys must have had the same question in mind when she read the Brontë novel, since her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea attempted to fill in the blanks. In 1993, acclaimed Irish director John Duigan (Flirting) adapted and directed a film adaptation of Rhys's novel. It became more infamous for the NC-17 rating the MPAA slapped on it than for the high quality of the finished film.
In Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester's ambiguous first wife is finally given a proper identity. She is Antoinette Cosway (Karina Lombard, The L Word),a Creole woman who has inherited a plantation in Jamaica. As rich as the land is, the plantation is struggling financially; nevertheless, Antoinette decides to run it herself with the aid of slaves and family. It is around this time that she enters into a romance with Edward Rochester (Nathaniel Parker, Inspector Lynley), a charming but mysterious Englishman. At first their romance and subsequent marriage go well, with the couple's mutual lust and passion overpowering their differences. The problems begin well after the marriage, when Rochester suddenly becomes cold and callous toward Antoinette. Then the issue arises of who exactly owns the plantation, since although it is Antoinette's by right, the property of a Victorian woman legally belongs to her husband. As these struggles occur, Antoinette begins to lose her sanity.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a wonderful movie. It is refreshingly unabashed in its sexuality and eroticism. I have grown so tired of the clichéd sex Hollywood favors in its product that it was a real pleasure to see that frank eroticism in a film is not dead. The sex scenes are not tasteless and crass but healthy in their depiction of growing passion between two consenting participants.
One does not need to have read the Rhys novel or even Jane Eyre to enjoy the film, although Jane Eyre fans have a head start. It has a sound, well-plotted story with startling characterizations. Duigan's film proudly stands alone as both a keystone of the new erotic cinema and a fine literary adaptation. In addition, Duigan is careful not to let the lush Jamaican locations overwhelm the story he has to tell. Instead, the visuals and story complement each other in perfect harmony.
The disc offers both Duigan's original NC-17 cut and the bowdlerized R-rated Blockbuster cut. To see the R-rated cut is the cinematic equivalent of only reading half a novel. Even though only a minute has been completely shaved off the original cut, important shots have been replaced or cropped. Some of the sheer impact is lost, and it is not the same film Duigan intended to be seen. Wide Sargasso Sea is a prime example of why the movie ratings system needs to be reformed. While the film is sexually frank, an R rating would have been more than acceptable: This is not pornography or trash but a film that should be seen by older teenagers who find themselves reading Jane Eyre for a class assignment. The treatment of sex is tasteful and healthy, far superior to the sexual attitudes found in many of the PG-13 and R-rated comedies teens love.
New Line presents Wide Sargasso Sea in both widescreen and full-frame versions on a single disc. My advice would be to stick with the widescreen edition, as it is the version intended by the filmmakers. Besides, it is time to cease supporting full-frame versions of widescreen films anyway. Getting back to the matter at hand, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is very pleasing to the eye. It may appear soft to some, but since softness is evidently the intent of director Duigan, I can forgive it. There is some grain, but it is a natural effect of soft-focus photography and easily acceptable. The lush colors are the standout treat of the transfer, with the boldness of the hues being very startling. The colors may bleed on some television sets, but they never become a distraction.
Audio is the standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mono job I have become accustomed to by now. New Line has done very good work with the transfer here. The dialogue is in perfect synch and tone with the picture. The music is appropriately light yet majestic through the speakers. There are no major defects such as hiss and popping, and the background is amazingly clean. This is as good as audio transfers can get.
The sole extra offered here is the original theatrical trailer, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Watch it and discover how an ambiguous approach can work with a trailer instead of giving the whole game away. There are also trailers for Human Nature, Storytelling, and Sleeping Dictionary, all challenging works of cinema that are worth seeing.
I realize that Wide Sargasso Sea is not for everyone. The sexual frankness and bold eroticism will turn off a significant portion of any potential audience, so those of you who are easily offended should turn back while you still have the chance. Those who are more adventurous and open-minded, however, should give this disc a try.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Theatrical Trailer