It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
She is a beautiful woman who lives caught in a web of superstition and fear, on an island in the sun. He is a rakish, handsome young man from England, out to visit his friends and perhaps make his fortune. A marriage is arranged between them - a marriage no less attractive because she is the mistress of a great estate. At first love is the only thing that matters. Then shadows begin to fall, caused by their own weaknesses, and also by the black magic of voodoo.
This is the sort of story outline you might expect to find on the back of a paperback romance novel, one of those books with a heaving bosom on the cover, and a dark tower with a light in one window. But the Gothic tradition has inspired all sorts of writers, perhaps because it provides a shortcut to our deepest yearnings and fears, and this is in fact the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel by Jean Rhys, the British author whose reputation continues to hold strong among those lonely few who actually read good fiction, instead of simply buying it.
Rhys got the idea for her novel from Jane Eyre, the novel by Charlotte Bronte - or perhaps she got it from the classic 1943 movie with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (intoning, from a great height in a very deep voice, "You are a strange girl, Jane Eyre"). Both novel and movie contain the same mystery, although not much is made of it: Who was the first Mrs. Rochester? Rochester is, of course, the brooding, possibly evil, undeniably attractive man who finally marries Jane Eyre, after sending her into fits of trepidation by his very presence. True to the Gothic tradition, he first appears menacing and dangerous, towering over her in fact and especially in her imagination. Only in the end does he consent to fulfill her romantic longings. And all the time, lurking beneath the surface of the story, is the offstage presence of the first wife, the woman he married in the Caribbean, the woman nobody ever speaks about.
"Wide Sargasso Sea" tells her story. The movie ends some time before the events in "Jane Eyre" begin. The first Mrs. Rochester, we learn, is named Antoinette Cosway (Karina Lombard). She is a beautiful, sultry, high-spirited young mulatto woman of the islands, living on a plantation she has inherited, running it with slaves and ancient family retainers, including the sinister Christophene (Claudia Robinson), whose visions and warnings are inspired by voodoo.