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rare female film critic | by maryann johanson

Wide Sargasso Sea (review)

Before She Was Mad

I don’t care what anyone says, Wide Sargasso Sea is Jane Eyre fan fiction. Literary critics can play up Jean Rhys’s classic 1966 novel however they want: it’s a critical reimagining, it’s a feminist takedown, whatever. It can be all those things, it can be a great novel, but it’s still fan fiction.
And now it’s been made into a second movie (the first one was in 1993), a made-for-the-BBC affair that aired in 2006 and is just out on DVD. And “affair” is a good word for it: it’s a very sexy adaptation of the tale of the doomed romance between Edward Rochester — yes, Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester — and Antoinette Cosway in steamy, exotic Jamaica in the 1830s. He’s the handsome second son of an aristocratic family forced to make his own way in the world, she’s a beautiful heiress with a fat dowry just waiting for some down-on-his-luck second-son aristocrat to come along and take it. After some of the ol’ hot-’n’-heavy and a few brief moments of happiness for the sad, innocent, dreamy, Antoinette, can there be anything other than disaster in the making?

You’ve guessed, haven’t you? Antoinette is the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman of Thornfield, of course. And Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of how Rochester, the cad, betrayed her and drove her mad (though she might well have been halfway there on her own already), how she ended up being called Bertha, and other deliciously melodramatic Jane Eyre goodness.

Oh, sure, there is indeed all sorts of modern reevaluation of such cultural conundrums as British colonialism in the Caribbean, with a feminist overtone of marriage as a kind of colonialism, and that’s all fine and good and lets you pretend you’re enjoying this for its high-mindedness. But honestly, we just want to know how Antoinette goes mad, and if there’s some good sexy bits along the way, so much the better. Rebecca Hall (she plays Vicky in Woody Allen’s upcoming film Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as Antoinette is spectacular, drifting through the movie in her nightgown like a specter of herself. Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz) as Rochester makes a wonderful bastard. And the pair of them have some pretty hot chemistry early on, but it gets even more intriguing later, once their romance starts to fall apart, and then it’s all spitting and hissing at each other.

Metaphorically speaking, of course. These folks are British, and this is a British production. There’s no actually spitting or hissing. There’s a lot of groaning, though. Enjoy.

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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