Wide Sargasso Sea

(John Duigan, Australia/USA, 1993)


Of all the Australian filmmakers whose fortunes rose when the so-called renaissance of national cinema flowered in the 1970s, John Duigan and Bruce Beresford seem to me the most old-fashioned.

Their skills were tailor-made for the genre of Australian film most prominent at that time: the stately, reflective, period movie, more novelistic than cinematic. A decade and a half later, local cinema has changed – but not Duigan or Beresford.

Duigan's adaptation of Jean Rhys' classic modern novel Wide Sargasso Sea – an Australian-American co-production made before Sirens (1994) but unreleased theatrically here – has much in common with Beresford's queasy Black Robe (1991) or, later, Bill Bennett's woeful In a Savage Land (1999).

Here, once again, is a struggle between a stiffly rationalist society, represented by Nathaniel Parker as the British gentleman Rochester, and a wild, native world of sensuality and mysticism, located in the Jamaica of the 1840s.

This is the kind of easy, schematic movie in which all civilised aristocrats are grotesque, death-driven perverts, while all the native locals are sassy, noble and possessed of an ageless wisdom.

In between these starkly opposed worlds is Antoinette Cosway (Karina Lombard), a "creole" whose misplaced passion for Rochester leads ultimately to Betty Blue-like fits of madness. Although Duigan strains to condemn patriarchy and celebrate transgressive female sexuality, his camera cannot cease caressing Lombard's unveiled curves in the most retrograde fashion imaginable.

At times Wide Sargasso Sea, with its magic potions and sweaty natives writhing to jungle rhythms, seems like a pale imitation of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur's brilliantly lyrical horror movie I Walked with a Zombie (1943).

This is not particularly surprising once one realises that both Lewton's film and Rhys' novel were bold attempts at rewriting the same cultural icon – Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

But Duigan's lifeless, by-the-numbers adaptation has neither the critical bite nor the intoxicating poetry of Lewton/Tourneur's B movie masterpiece.

MORE Duigan: Head in the Clouds, Lawn Dogs, Mouth to Mouth

© Adrian Martin June 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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