2006, 84 minutes.
Director: Brendan Maher
Screenplay: Stephen Greenhorn, from the novel by Jean Rhys
With: Rafe Spall, Rebecca Hall, Nina Sosanya, Victoria Hamilton, Lorraine Burroughs
English novelist Jean Rhys was raised on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, the daughter of a Welsh father and a Creole mother, so Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" must have struck a particular chord with her. The novel's insane Mrs. Rochester -- a presence creepily sensed but largely unseen until the novel's fiery climax -- turns out to be a Creole from the West Indies who years earlier was brought to England by her husband and locked in the upper reaches of his mansion. Bronte's madwoman in the attic became the template for a strain of Gothic literature (and B movies). But Rhys asked, How did she get there? -- and in 1966, after a 27-year hiatus from novel writing, published "Wide Sargasso Sea," a prequel to "Jane Eyre" set almost entirely in Dominica and Jamaica in the 1830s, a decade before the main events of "Eyre."
Rhys' novel was made into a sleek, exploitative feature (rated NC-17) in 1993, starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker ("Inspector Lynley Mysteries"); this new BBC adaptation is richer and more moving, thanks to subtle direction by Brendan Maher and a poignant performance by Rebecca Hall as the doomed Antoinette Cosway (the name Rhys gives to the character called Bertha in "Eyre"). Antoinette is a 20-ish, free-spirited beauty living in tropical Jamaican splendor with a very Victorian aunt and a handful of dutiful but mysterious native servants. Young Edward Rochester (Rafe Spall, son of the great Timothy Spall) has come to Jamaica at the urging of a friend who has told him of the great beauty ready for the plucking. Edward is a second son whose father's fortune has been settled on his older brother, so he must make his own way in the world, and marrying an unspoiled girl with a supposedly huge dowry seems like a plan. Once he sets eyes on Antoinette, Edward deems the miserable transatlantic journey to have been entirely worth it.
Antoinette is as smitten as Edward and the two are soon married, but paradise is fleeting. The story takes on shades of "Othello" as a mixed-race half-brother of Antoinette pops up to feed Edward tales of the girl's crazy mother and her less-than-innocent childhood friendship with a Creole boy. Edward, who up to this point has been merely buttoned up, now becomes mad with doubt and jealousy and starts to torment the honest and loving Antoinette. He tells her he doesn't like her long name and he'll think of another for her. (Bertha -- what a guy.)
After a complete breakdown in their relationship -- helped along by a dash of voodoo poisoning -- Edward decides it's time to leave the heat, the bugs and the so very un-English behavior behind and drag his "crazy" wife back to England to live a long, miserable life. It's not surprising that the plain, but sane, Jane would later prove so appealing to him. Modern critics of "Jane Eyre" decry the novel's antifeminist denouement ("Reader, I married him"), in which Jane can only wed Edward after he has been maimed and blinded -- unsexed -- by the climactic house fire. Rhys seems to concur with the critics: her Rochester is a deranged Puritan who, if he had all his strength, would surely kill the spirit of Bronte's blessed heroine just as he did her poor, fragile forerunner.
"Wide Sargasso Sea" has been cleanly transferred to disc in the 16:9 aspect ratio. The rectangular picture will fill an older, standard TV from left to right, with black bars at top and bottom; on newer TVs, the film appears in windowbox format, with black bars all around -- an unfortunate waste of screen space for such a gorgeous production. Cinematographer David Luther uses natural light (or fakes it impressively) to capture the bright greens, reds and yellows of the Jamaican flora as well as the ochres and moonshadow blues of the candle-lit interiors.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is vibrant and alive. Besides the well-recorded, softly spoken dialogue and the fine musical score, there is the constant but unobtrusive sound of the tropics -- insects buzzing, birds chirping, reeds whistling in the breeze, branches cracking underfoot -- and, in early scenes, a masterful blending of other voices murmuring outside our view of the main characters.
The extras amount to optional white subtitles and text screens giving a biography of author Jean Rhys and filmographies of the principal actors. When you first slide the DVD in, it takes you right to a montage of other Acorn titles, but pushing your menu button will immediately bring up the main menu. The nine chapters are sufficient for this short feature.
Better than, if not as flesh-baring as the 1993 "Wide Sargasso Sea," this 2006 production (which aired in the U.K. but not in the U.S.) is a fine bit of lit TV. Jean Rhys' mid-20th-century prequel to Charlotte Bronte's 1847 classic is both a moving tale of love ruined by jealousy and suspicion, and a biting indictment of Victorian sanctimony. It could play on a double bill (if such a thing existed anymore) with Philip Haas' 1995 adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel "Angels & Insects," which ripped away the curtain on Victorian sexuality. "Sargasso's" tall, stunning British star Rebecca Hall will next be seen as Vicky in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and later heads back to the 1840s in "Bronte," playing Charlotte Bronte's sister Emily, untamed author of "Wuthering Heights."