Judge Christopher Kulik has sailed through the infamous Sargasso Sea. While his ship didn't disappear in its seaweed, a giant European eel nearly choked him to death.
Our review of Wide Sargasso Sea, published November 15th, 2004, is also available.
"I'm not used to happiness…it makes me afraid!"—Antoinette Cosway
Jean Rhys' 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Cited as a prequel to the Charlotte Bronte classic Jane Eyre, it never once mentions the central characters of Jane or Mr. Rochester. Instead, Rhys gives a voice to the "madwoman of the attic," a secondary character in Bronte's novel.
While Jane Eyre has been adapted to film many times, Wide Sargasso Sea has only come to the screen twice. The first time was in 1993, in which Australian director John Duigan decided to take a crack at Rhys' narrative and came up with an erotic, sumptuous, but quite flawed adaptation. In 2006, a new version surfaced on British television and now it makes its way across the pond onto DVD courtesy of Acorn Media.
Facts of the Case
Jamaica, 1830s: Edward Rochester (Rafe Spall, Hot Fuzz) has arrived to seek his fortune. By chance, he meets the ravishing Antoinette Cosway (Rebecca Hall, The Prestige), a Creole woman who submits to his courteous advancement. Despite warnings by her aunt to not get married in a hurry, Antoinette falls immediately in love and even gives Edward her dowry.
The couple move into their honeymoon home with the help of two Jamaican housekeepers: Christophine (Nina Sosanya, Manderlay) and Amelie (Lorraine Burroughs). Their relationship grows with each passing day, both sexually and intimately, with Antoinette discovering true happiness for the first time in her life. When her brother Richard starts warning Edward of madness in the Cosway family however, the marriage begins to take a sharp turn toward disaster.
I first read Jane Eyre in high school. The first few chapters grabbed me, but when Jane became a governess in Edward Rochester's household (and, later, began an affair with him), my interest waned. I never understood what Jane saw in this aging, cold-hearted man, especially since he slept with other women and obviously kept secrets from her. That's not to say it's a bad novel or Bronte is a bad writer (she isn't); the romance just turned me off at a certain point and I was more interested in the "madwoman of the attic," the imprisoned Mrs. Rochester.
Jump ahead several years later and I read Wide Sargasso Sea in college. I was mesmerized with not only its story but also its prose. It may not have answered my confusion over Jane's decision to be with Rochester, but it did give me a better understanding of his brooding character. Even more so, it gave an emotionally compelling voice to Antoinette (nee Bertha), while also being drenched in a steamy Caribbean atmosphere. To this day, it's one of my favorite novels.
As good as the 1993 theatrical version was, it disappointed me on several levels. The Jamaican scenery was breathtaking and the acting was adequate enough; still, it seemed to me the director depended more on sex instead of the powerful themes in Rhys' novel. She touches upon racism, colonialism, and (most importantly) identity, while also carefully crafting two complex characters struggling with a union doomed from the start. Antoinette is an outcast, receiving prejudice not only from the white European settlers but also the black Jamaicans who label her as a "white cockroach." This 2006 adaptation puts complete faith in the narrative and surpasses the 1993 version in practically every way.
Screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn has condensed the original text in meticulous fashion, making it flow naturally, with nothing feeling forced. Sure, he largely ignores Parts I (summarizing Antoinette's childhood) and III (Bertha's burning of Thornton Hall) to focus on the marriage gone sour due to outside forces. While there are allusions to voodoo and black magic, Greenhorn is more concerned with the patriarchal, racist society and how it destroys Antoinette's growing happiness and fuels Edward's suspicions—the dramatic crux which drives Rhys' story. He and director Brendan Maher (both veterans of British TV) craft an eloquent adaptation which beautifully mixes faithfulness and dramatization, with neither element compromising the other.
Beyond that, this version of Wide Sargasso Sea is worth watching for the rich performances alone. Rafe (son of Timothy) Spall makes an excellent Rochester, a man without emotion or remorse, who feels the need to take control of his supposedly sick wife. He smiles rarely, giving the character an intense arc, motivated by male power and misplaced musings. Also matching him are the minor—but no less crucial—contributions by Sosanya and Burroughs as the Jamaican housekeepers. Sosanya, especially, gives Christophine just the right amount of concern and empathy, pushing Antoinette to dodge Edward's psychological clutches.
The film's real revelation is Rebecca Hall, however. First off, she eclipses Karina Lombard's somewhat stiff interpretation of Antoinette in the John Duigan version, which failed to exhibit the character's lost innocence and mental deterioration in a satisfying way. Secondly, Hall not only looks the part but lives it, resulting in a devastating performance which pulls out all the emotional stops. You understand her, empathize with her, and ultimately root for her; Hall's final moments solidify a genuine talent which demands attention. High profile directors Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen have already taken notice; in fact, she will play the one of the two title roles in the latter's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, coming out later this year.
This BBC version of Wide Sargasso Sea is given the digital treatment by Acorn Media. Sporting a 1.85 anamorphic print, the picture looks fine for the most part. The director occasionally misuses the lighting, making some scenes darker than necessary; still, the film is easy on the eyes, with some lush colors scattered throughout. Audio-wise, we are treated to a DD 2.0 track. Dialogue is easily heard and Nina Humphrey's score is appropriately pulse-pounding. Subtitles are provided in English only. Special features are unfortunately-if expectedly-minimal, with a biography of Jean Rhys and some cast filmographies as the only goodies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My quibbles with the film are almost nonexistent. I only wished that the filmmakers used the Jamaican setting to greater advantage, as it was filmed on location. Overall, it just lacks the expansive scope of the 1993 version, telling us more it was made for TV with a limited budget. This is only a minor nit-pick, however, as there are still some gorgeous shots to marvel at.
A superlative, near-perfect adaptation of a great novel, Wide Sargasso Sea is highly recommended, despite its minor status.
The film and Acorn Media are free to go. Rebecca Hall is given a special commendation by the court for her magnificent performance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• Jean Rhys biography
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