WIDE SARGASSO SEA–by Dr. Laura Wilhelm, LauraWil Intercultural
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/20/17 – To date Australian director John Duigan’s 1993 film WIDE SARGASSO SEA is one of the best cinematic treatments of slavery in all its forms that this reviewer has ever seen. George Cukor’s epic 1939 masterwork GONE WITH THE WIND is perhaps its closest analogue, yet compelling differences remain between the two films.
The film versions of GWTW and WSS are based upon well-respected literary sources by Margaret Mitchell and Jean Rhys and take place after slavery has been abolished in their respective nations (the US and the UK). These period dramas set in the mid-1800s spring to life through the eyes of young heroines (Scarlett O’Hara and Antoinette Cosway) who continue to receive moral guidance from former slave nannies when their mothers leave the scene. Naturally, these forceful black women have considerable impact upon their fanciful white charges.
This bifurcated (not to say black and white) perspective is communicated with particular eloquence in WSS as Antoinette and her mother Annette are Creole women in the Caribbean with fairly recent French roots. When slavery disappears, so do their perhaps artificially exalted positions in life as slave owners.
Antoinette’s father soon drinks himself to death when the family fortunes change and her little brother also dies. Bereft of male protection, the two women enter into hastily arranged marriages with Englishmen. Their huge weddings are conducted in their native Jamaica.
But under English law, the wife’s financial holdings immediately revert to the husband. Thus there are ways in which mother Annette and daughter Antoinette are now more enslaved than the black women who once attended them!
None of this escapes the notice of the former slaves, who initially rebel by killing a horse, doing their work badly, openly mocking their former owners, and burning down the big house where Antoinette’s family lives. A parrot with clipped wings that is dramatically burned to death during the slaves’ uprising prefigures Antoinette’s sad demise at the end of the film.
Later on a newly liberated slave even makes a successful play for Antoinette’s English husband. These are former slaves, after all–not saints!
Another historically accurate detail is implied through a disreputable mulatto character who attempts to blackmail Antoinette’s husband by revealing his illegitimate ties to her family. White slave owners throughout this world frequently fathered children with black slave women without benefit of matrimony.
Both of the English husbands (well played by Michael York and Nathaniel Parker) are shown to be displaced from their own cultural domain, making it necessary for them to seek brides overseas. This process is quite familiar to many of us with the advent of widespread globalization. Antoinette’s husband becomes increasingly abusive to her owing in large part to his sense of inadequacy as a second son who will not inherit from his wealthy father under the laws of primogeniture unless his older brother dies (as in fact he does!)
Crossing the “wide Sargasso Sea” has become a complex metaphor for intercultural overtures of all kinds. In their arranged marriage Antoinette and her husband almost desperately try to bridge the many gaps between them with good conversation and great sex, which is rather graphically portrayed on screen. Their tragic failure to connect is, unfortunately, all too common in relationships of this kind.
During his fateful journey to Jamaica, Antoinette’s suitor sees a sailor pulled to his death when he tries to untangle seaweed caught in the ship’s motor. Later he has several vivid dreams about being entangled in seaweed with Antoinette. He quickly comes to wish for her death when he cannot fathom the depths here symbolized, seeing her only as a “wild creature’ he cannot tame.
In Jamaica the English suitor turned spouse finds it difficult to adjust to the heat, humidity, and unhurried pace of island life that his wife so appreciates. He is also used to automatic respect if not outright deference as a white-skinned Western man and cannot always cope with the former slaves’ insubordinate conduct.
Speaking of the former slaves, all are perfectly cast and costumed in WSS. Duigan’s observant portrayal of their native traditions adds greatly to the interest of the film. If anything, the dance scenes are even more exciting than the sex scenes!
Rowena King superbly plays her small role as the sultry slave girl who seduces Antoinette’s new husband on their honeymoon. Claudia Robinson is an absolute marvel in all her scenes as Antoinette’s aging nanny Christophene, who keeps the other slaves in line through her sheer force of character and knowledge of obeah (black magic) that was widely practiced throughout the Caribbean at the time. One of her powerful love potions is even used (unsuccessfully) on Antoinette’s philandering Lothario!
Both Rachel Ward and Karina Lombard effortlessly embody the lush tropical beauty of the West Indies in their roles as Annette and Antoinette Cosway. Their exotic looks are hard to analyze ethnically, which makes them endlessly intriguing to a discerning eye.
Lombard’s part Native American heritage makes WSS especially appropriate for the Thanksgiving season. It can be viewed online by following this link:
Be prepared for a screen flooded with stunning beauty in practically every frame! WSS is worth savoring very slowly in close-up on a PC as this reviewer has done many times.
WSS, which was published in 1966 by its Dominican-born English author, is famed for being a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel JANE EYRE. It purports to explain the origins of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, the notorious “madwoman in the attic.” WSS still begs the question whether Antoinette/Bertha was born or made crazy.
However, WSS stands on its own as a fascinating “she said/he said” story of a sort not often seen either in print or on screen. Its uneven critical reception both as a book and a film probably reflects the ambiguity of its themes rather than the artistry of their portrayal. In any case, try watching WSS for a hard look at some serious human issues that still rings true.