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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Wide Sargasso Sea' Implausible but Atmospheric

April 23, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Wide Sargasso Sea" is so soaked in atmosphere it feels practically marinated. A lush, feverish tropical concoction filled with vivid colors, pounding drums and passionate liaisons, this Caribbean melodrama gets so overheated it doesn't even notice that its dramatic plausibility has vaporized into the steamy air.

Not that that matters very much. Though its based on a celebrated novel, winner of several of Britain's top literary prizes, the appeal of this film is primarily to the visual senses. Even as its story gets increasingly arbitrary, the look and spirit of the film remain diverting, a hothouse garden you can hide in when the real world gets too close.

Though "Sargasso" makes no on-screen reference to it, Jean Rhys' 1966 novel was intended as a kind of imaginative prequel to Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," a look at the life Rochester and the mysterious first Mrs. R (here called Antoinette Cosway) led in Jamaica before they settled in England.

Before that story is told, however, "Sargasso" (at the Music Hall) opens with an extensive prologue dealing with Antoinette's widowed mother Annette, "spirited, beautiful and very French." Left to cope with running a Jamaican plantation after her husband drinks himself to death, Annette (Rachel Ward) marries a foppish Englishman (Michael York) too dense to understand that the newly freed islanders can't still be treated as slaves.

Clearly, no good will come of this, and when things go sour little Antoinette is sequestered in a convent school. Later, as an heiress (model Karina Lombard in her film debut), a marriage is eventually arranged for her with the young Englishman Rochester (Nathaniel Parker) who is so disoriented by the long ocean voyage that he no sooner sees his intended bride than he faints dead away.

*

Complete strangers from opposite sides of the world, these two young people nevertheless fall in love. As directed by Australian John Duigan ("Flirting," "The Year My Voice Broke") from a script he wrote with producer Jan Sharp and Carole Angier, "Sargasso Sea" is at its most charming when dealing with these two smitten young people, oblivious to everything but each other.

Their romance largely takes place in Antoinette's ancestral home deep in the verdant hills of Jamaica, where her former nanny and full-time sorceress Christophene (energetically played by Claudia Robinson) keeps everyone in line. Antoinette is "a wild creature, untamed," and Rochester, though not as romantic, seems to get into the spirit of things quite nicely.

While its NC-17 rating is apparently due in part to a brief shot of male frontal nudity, "Sargasso Sea" is rife with romantic, clothing-optional scenes involving both sexes (plus shots of glistening dancers cavorting to the inevitable throbbing jungle drums) and its decorous, insistent sensuality will probably make it a date-night favorite.

All this is quite diverting, but then the situation between Antoinette and Rochester begins to spoil in the heat. Unnerved by monster moths, the hauteur of Christophene, the pounding of all those drums and the unmistakable bedroom eyes of the fetching Amelie (Rowena King), Rochester starts to lose his bearings. "I feel like I'm floating in an opium dream," he says of his waking life, and he begins to literally dream of sailors trapped and lifeless in the Sargasso's endless beds of seaweed.

Emotionally, however, the trouble that develops is not as believable as the passion that preceded it, and the seriousness with which "Sargasso Sea" is forced to treat the couple's problems never manages to make them convincing. Other dramatic elements, like the mysterious stranger who is forever lurking about the premises, similarly refuse to come into focus or even make basic sense. But though it might be inevitable that a movie this drunk on ambience would dissolve when exposed to the light of narrative coherence, "Wide Sargasso Sea" manages to remain amusing, even when it boils over the top.

'Wide Sargasso Sea'

Karina Lombard: Antoinette Cosway

Nathaniel Parker: Rochester

Rachel Ward: Annette Cosway

Michael York: Paul Mason

Martine Beswicke: Aunt Cora

Claudia Robinson: Christophene

Rowena King: Amelie

A Laughing Kookaburra production, released by Fine Line Features. Director John Duigan. Producer Jan Sharp. Executive producer Sara Risher. Screenplay Jan Sharp, Carole Angier, John Duigan, based on the novel by Jean Rhys. Cinematographer Geoff Burton. Editors Annie Goursaud, Jimmy Sandoval. Costumes Norma Moriceau. Music Stewart Copeland. Production design Franckie D. Art director Susan Bolles. Set decorator Ron Von Blombert. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated NC-17.

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