In 'Wild Sargasso Sea,' a cinematic wave of chill, beauty, Bronte

May 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Why, it's a positively delicious concept. The Senator, tha august yet sedate purveyor of the very finest in bourgeois cinema fare, that living museum of good taste and refinement, 1939-style, that last bastion of Middlebrow Art on York Road . . . showing porn?

Well, not quite. However, the Senator is showing an NC-17 film, full of writhing bodies and tasteful nudity, and the one slip of frontal male anatomy that earns "Wide Sargasso Sea" its NC-17 has got to be looked for with a good deal of concentration, lest it be missed.

In all other ways, however, theater and film are well-matched. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is literary, "refined," bourgeois and extremely beautiful. It diverges from the ambience of its venue only in its coldness, despite the tropical hot-bloodedness.

Derived from a Jean Rhys novel by director John Duigan -- the highly regarded Australian who has directed the autobiographical tales "The Year My Voice Broke" and "Flirting" -- the movie has literary antecedents beyond Rhys. In fact it is, to use a popular Hollywood term, all "backstory." Backstory, as the people who run Hollywood have it, is the explanation for a character's circumstances, usually exotic. In other words, cable installers and junior partners in dreary law firms never have backstories, while haunted cops always do.

But "Wide Sargasso Sea" is backstory to something that stands outside itself: an entirely different book -- Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," in which a brooding, haunted aristocrat named Edward Rochester returns to his newly inherited Yorkshire mansion with a mad wife after mysterious adventures in Jamaica. (In the classy 1943 Hollywood version, Rochester was played by Orson Welles.) "Wide Sargasso Sea" aspires to tell us what's up with Rochester in Jamaica.

If there's a "trick," it's that Rochester is not seen through his own eyes and is not the center of the story. Instead, he is seen through the eyes of Antoinette (Karina Lombard), his betrothed, the only surviving daughter of a haunted clan of French settlers in the islands, whose destinies have turned to dust after the end of slavery in the 1840s. Thus the movie's version of Jamaica is rather post-apocalyptic: A world has ended and no one has gotten around to inventing a new one, not the now free but confused blacks nor the suddenly impoverished whites, who look at each other through befuddled eyes.

In this tropic depression, Rochester (Nathaniel Parker) shows up penniless (his older brother has gotten the house) to take part in an arranged marriage with Antoinette. She's the stepdaughter of an Englishman who has himself fled the islands because of their brutality and his own failed marriage to Antoinette's beautiful French mother (Rachel Ward). Antoinette is this woman's child by her first marriage, grown herself to beauty.

At first, the newlyweds repair to a house high in the mountains. Rochester, a proper, dour young man who refuses to take his coat and tie off no matter how much he sweats, is clearly overwhelmed by the riotous colors and freedoms of the islands. Once he and Antoinette sleep together, he begins to lose his inhibitions. But it can't work out: Rochester is fundamentally too cold and self-involved. He's also a little frightened of his new wife's overwhelming love (and lust) and of rumors of madness that reach him through the medium of anonymous letters. When he becomes disenchanted, she turns to her nurse, a voodoo priestess, for a magic potion that will restore his love. It restores not just his love but his lust, and soon he's looking elsewhere for relief, starting a long, tragic train that will end with her locked in her room in Yorkshire, baying at the moon.

Though "Wide Sargasso Sea" can stand alone, it picks up in richness and resonance if one is aware of its connection to the Bronte novel and also to the tragic life of Jean Rhys, who was very much like Antoinette in her way.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Wide Sargasso Sea"

Starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker

Directed by John Duigan

Released by Fine Line

Rated NC-17

** 1/2

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