The good news is that Karina Lombard is great in bed. The bad news is that the novice thespian's acting skills drop off precipitously the further she ventures from the boudoir.
Luckily Wide Sargasso Sea, the cinematic adaptation of Jean Rhys's 1966 novel, calls for Antoinette (the tragic heroine played by Lombard) to spend a good deal of her time in the ol' four-poster. That's not to say that she whiles away the whole movie makin' whoopee (although it might have been a better film, in a Joe Bob Briggs sort of way, if she had). Antoinette is a graduate of the star-crossed leading lady school; much of her time atop the mattress is devoted to moping, self-pity, and commiserating with the servants. Blessed with a face that looks like a cross between a Gauguin painting and a Nagel print, Lombard fares best when the camera is allowed to dote on her exotic features and worst when she is called upon to deliver stilted period dialogue. It doesn't help matters any that screenwriters Jan Sharp (who also produced the film), John Duigan (who directed), and Carole Angier have saddled the star with mawkish palaver that sounds like it was written by Erich Love Story Segal on a bad day.
"Never make promises," Antoinette solemnly instructs her befuddled English husband. "Then they'll never be broken." And love means never having to say you're sorry.
Sharp endured several false starts with a variety of writers trying to convert Rhys's lyrical prose into a filmable script, before opting to pen it herself (with input from Rhys biographer Angier). Acclaimed Australian director Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting) then reshaped Sharp's script to fit his own notions of Rhys's work. The novel used the character of Mrs. Rochester, the mad wife in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, as a point of departure. So the Wide Sargasso Sea that finally makes it to the screen sets some sort of record for revisions by different authors; it's Duigan's take on Sharp's interpretation of Angier's view of Rhys's fascination with Bronte's characters.
With that many cooks, it's a wonder they didn't spoil the broth beyond redemption. The filmmakers got a couple of things right: the lush, steamy footage shot on location in Jamaica and St. Lucia contrasts starkly with the harsh, snow-covered moors of northern England, a juxtaposition that dramatically underlines sensual, spontaneous Antoinette's disintegration when forced to live with her loveless husband in cold, cold Britain.
Jamaicans have long had a particular affinity for Rhys's novel because it mirrors their colonial experience fairly candidly A the English are made out to be pompous, sexless, opportunistic dandies A and that is largely the view that emerges on-screen. But the film deliberately makes Edward Rochester less of a cad than the novel did and, in the process, blunts many of Rhys's sharper digs at British arrogance and reserve. As written by Duigan and portrayed by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Nathaniel Parker, the cinematic Rochester comes across as a decent guy who gets in over his head when he leaves England for the alien, seductive tropics. Even when Rochester finally beds his maid immediately after making love to his wife, it's not so much because he's a shit, but because Antoinette has overdosed him on a voodoo lust potion after being warned it was "too powerful for a white man."
Ultimately, everything the movie has to say boils down to the nuances in the development of Antoinette and Rochester's relationship. A good deal of the film's commercial appeal rides on the romantic chemistry between its tragically incompatible protagonists; the ad campaign wears its NC-17 rating proudly, as if to say, "Come on in. The water's hot." While we get to see most of Lombard's and Parker's anatomy, the unwieldy stream of writers have failed to give us enough insight into what makes their characters tick. Rachel Ward as Antoinette's desperate mother, Annette Cosway, and Michael York as the wealthy English fop who marries her add little. They appear so briefly as to make one wonder how much of their performances wound up on the editing room floor. Antoinette is an enigma throughout A bewitching, primal, and impulsive, but finally opaque and inexplicable. A great performance from Lombard might have compensated, but the model-turned-actress is inconsistent. And Parker's Rochester transforms from a nurturing over in one scene to an aloof jerk in the next with little warning.
It's understandable that Rochester might be attracted to Antoinette A she's beautiful, mysterious, and a sugar heiress to boot. He, on the other hand, is rather ordinary looking, not that bright, clumsy (at least initially), and obviously as interested in her dowry as in her heart. What's in it for Antoinette? It's never clear why she doesn't listen when her loyal housekeeper Christophene (engagingly portrayed by scene-stealing Miami resident Claudia Robinson, who gets most of the good lines) advises her to give the English snot the heave-ho. You can be forgiven for thinking of that Joe Jackson song, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
Between Lombard's hit-and-miss acting and her character's lack of motivation, believing Antoinette would fall for Rochester that fast and that hard requires a leap of faith wider than the wide Sargasso Sea.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.