We gave it a B+
Anyone on the lookout for the sort of delirious, dark-heart-of-the-tropics view of human sensuality that went out with Freud won’t be disappointed by Wide Sargasso Sea: For a while, this adaptation of Jean Rhys’ audacious 1966 novel invites us to luxuriate in a full-tilt case of jungle fever. In the middle of the 19th century, Rochester (Nathaniel Parker), a conventional but spirited young Englishman, arrives in the British colony of Jamaica, where — it has already been arranged — he will marry Antoinette (Karina Lombard), an exotically beautiful Creole heiress with an ominous past. The marriage starts out as a blissful plummet into desire and spiritual communion. For Rochester, the liberation of the senses is dizzying, hallucinatory; he has passed through the looking glass of European civilization and entered a primitive utopia.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jamaica becomes a spooky gothic Eden, its vaporous splendor melting inhibitions. For all its intoxicating sexiness, though, the movie — unlike, say, last year’s soft-core art special, The Lover — allows us to see what its two sensually consumed characters respond to in each other: a mutual emotional delicacy, a sense of love as grown-up child’s play.
Then the idyll unravels. One day, Rochester observes his wife dancing, in a happy frenzy, along with some of her former slaves (now servants). Her ”wildness” — everything he loves about her — is crystallized into an image of aggressive abandon he can’t handle. Rochester begins to experience Antoinette’s ardor as a whirlpool sucking his identity into the abyss. Grimly, resolutely, he sets about betraying his own feelings of love. He destroys the marriage to preserve himself.
Rhys conceived Wide Sargasso Sea as a fanciful prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. What’s alive in John Duigan’s screen version, however, is a stirringly modern vision of the forces that can tear even a passionate marriage apart. Lombard gives Antoinette edgy glints of sophistication and humor, despair and rage. We’re shocked, at first, by the forcefulness of her love — and then by how devastatingly well she knows her husband. And Parker, who suggests a more robust David Byrne, lets us register every step in Rochester’s gradual slide from tender lover to emotional fascist. In Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s not jungle fever that brings on tragedy; it’s the coldhearted cure. B+