Wide Sargasso Sea - based on the 1966 novel by Jean Rhys, originally aired by the BBC in 2006 and finally releasing to U.S. audiences on DVD later this month - is a sensuous look at a descent into madness. Ostensibly presented as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the story is about Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette Cosway, and how she transformed into that ghostly lunatic locked in the tower at Thornfield Manor.
Edward Rochester, a disenfranchised second son, has come to Jamaica to seek his fortune at his father’s behest. Edward could not be more English: tight-lipped, excruciatingly proper and respectably swaddled in good English woolens. He is entirely unprepared for life in the Caribbean – the warm, sticky, scented air, the beautiful women, the copious amounts of rum – and is unable to do much more than protest feebly when his friend Richard fixes him up with Richard’s stepsister, Antoinette.
Antoinette is lovely, innocent and presumably quite unlike any English ladies Edward has ever met, barefoot and dreamy. She introduces him to the beauty and wonders of her island home and he is quickly smitten with her. Before long they are married, over the odd protestations of Antoinette’s Aunt Cora and amid the murmured whisperings of the Jamaican townsfolk. Dizzily in love, the newlyweds head to the Cosway summer home in the mountains for their honeymoon.
The mountain house is beautiful and decayed which seems to be the state of nearly everything in Jamaica, as Edward soon discovers. The couple spends their days exploring their surroundings and each other’s bodies; Antoinette is the happiest she has ever been and Edward relaxes for the first time in his life.
It doesn’t take long for things to fall apart, of course. Antoinette’s nurse, Christophine, is openly hostile towards her former charge’s new husband; the other servants are dodgy and impertinent. Edward begins to hear rumors that his wife’s mother was insane and tried to kill her own husband. Digging deeper, he uncovers additional secrets, including that madness likely runs in the Cosway family. He retreats into his Englishness – well on his way to becoming the harsh, withdrawn Rochester we know from Jane Eyre - and Antoinette’s fragile psyche starts to disintegrate. By the movie’s end, it is uncertain whether her insanity is wholly genetic or in large part due to her husband’s treatment of her.
This production is gorgeous: filmed in Jamaica, the colors and textures are lush and saturated. A couple of times the director used trite, swirling camera work to indicate the characters’ unstable states of mind which I found annoying. He should have trusted the actors’ capable performances: Rebecca Hall, as Antoinette, and Rafe Spall, as Edward, are heartbreaking in their bewilderment and anguish as their lives spiral out of control. They certainly didn’t need whirling, stuttering shots of jungle vegetation and blurred faces to help convey their pain.
The DVD extras are a little skimpy: previews from other British television productions; a biography of Jean Rhys, the author of the source material; and the main cast’s filmographies. I did find the Rhys biographical information interesting, and one doesn't really expect a lot from the extras for a production like this anyway.
British television has long had a reputation for quality period drama, mining the wealth of classic literature and making these rich stories accessible to folks who might not be inclined to pick up the book. I think Wide Sargasso Sea is a strong entry into the field and am pleased that those of us in the U.S. finally have the chance to enjoy it.
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