NEW YORK — An exotic and erotic melodrama bearing notable literary pedigrees , “Wide Sargasso Sea” is an uneven but ultimately engrossing feature that should provide interesting counterprogramming for New Line’s art house unit Fine Line.
Film is the third pic to be made from the work of British novelist Jean Rhys: Malcolm McDowell starred in a 1978 short from her “Tigers Are Better Looking,” and Merchant Ivory filmed “Quartet” in
France in 1980 with Isabelle Adjani.
Many British projects from Rhys’ other novels have gone unrealized over the past 20 years, including Harold Becker planning “After Leaving McKenzie” and Michael Apted prepping both “Good Morning, Midnight” (to star Glenda Jackson) and “Wide Sargasso Sea” (for French starlet Beatrice Romand).
Aussie director John Duigan, best known for his highly personal memoirs “The Year My Voice Broke” and “Flirting,” has finally filmed “Sargasso Sea” with stunning location photography in Jamaica and the north of England, but the editing looks like the film was put through a shredder.
At first confusing storyline concerns mad French woman Rachel Ward in Jamaica who marries Englishman Michael York and is subjected to a the trauma of an uprising by ex-slaves at the end of the first reel.
Her daughter, played as a youngster by Casey Berna and as adult by lovely model Karina Lombard, narrates the tale at first. Grown up, she is stuck in a marriage arranged by her uncle to Englishman Edward Rochester, the villain of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” played by Nathaniel Parker.
The couple’s erotic tangles in and out of love are set against a backdrop of superstition in which the local black Jamaican form of voodoo seems to hold each of them in thrall.
Frequent nude and sex scenes are mainly tastefully handled, though a couple briefly have the explicit content that earned “Sargasso” an NC-17 rating.
Punctuated by frequent nightmare imagery emphasizing her mother’s madness or Parker imagining himself trapped underwater in seaweed, film exerts a fablelike power on its audience despite its choppy construction.
Parker is blackmailed by a native with information about Lombard’s background , which turns out to be news of her supposedly inheriting the madness of her mother.
Upshot is Parker’s infidelity with seductive servant girl Rowena King, which sends Lombard over the top while alienating the other servants, especially Lombard’s black nanny (and medicine woman) Claudia Robinson.
In a hurried windup, Parker gets an inheritance and returns to his ancestral home of Thornfield in England with Lombard.
She goes mad in a garret and the scene is set for Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine to take over in “Jane Eyre.”
Lombard, who most recently has landed the role of Tom Cruise’s Cayman Islands seductress in “The Firm,” is a hauntingly beautiful heroine well-matched to shirt-ad handsome Parker. Their acting is not really up to some dramatic scenes, particularly those in which they may be operating under the influence of voodoo.
Thesping honors go to Robinson as the nanny, who’s sharp tongue perfectly embodies the rebellious nature of the still-subjugated servant population. Martine Beswicke, herself Jamaican-born, is a treat as Lombard’s loyal aunt, but her character is conveniently written out of most of the film.
The very sexy Rowena King upstages the heroine in several scenes but overplays her role.
Aussie lenser Geoff Burton has done an atmospheric job lensing in Jamaica, buttressed by brief, contrasting scenes in wintry England (executed by Gabriel Beristain).
Varied musical score by Stewart Copeland is valuable in knitting together disparate scenes and especially excels during native dance sequences.