Based on Jean Rhys’ novel, John Duigan’s film traces the events that preceded the dark secret at the heart of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, specifically, how madwoman-in-the-attic Bertha came to be locked away in her ashamed husband Rochester’s gloomy mansion. The cause of her madness, according to Wide Sargasso Sea, was colonialism. In this prequel, she’s a Creole heiress in Jamaica who is fixed up in an arranged marriage with a British gentleman. Their life in Jamaica is idyllic at first, but eventually, the marriage (and her sanity) crumbles under the combined weight of island sensuality (Rochester falls hard for the island’s temptations), planter-class power dynamics, and both spouses’ complicated feelings about race.
The movie echoes these points, made in the book, though its chief focus is on the couple’s torrid sexuality. Steamy scenes between stars Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker resulted in an NC-17 rating (there’s also a slightly less steamy R-rated cut). The result may play like an extra-classy piece of slash fiction, but the film works on its own terms, perhaps because its protagonists seem so very far removed from the characters as we’ve come to know them in Jane Eyre.