In the wake of Jamaican emancipation, French colonist Annette Cosway falls into poverty and marries racist Englishman Paul Mason. But when Annette’s young son dies in a fire started by former slaves, Mason flees to England, leaving his grief-stricken wife and her Creole daughter Antoinette behind. Soon Antoinette learns she must marry to claim her inheritance and sets her sights on Rochester, an Englishman eerily similar to Mason.
Director John Duigan’s NC-17 rated (also in an R-version and longer unrated version), lush and beautifully-photographed adaptation of Jean Rhys’ 1966 acclaimed best-seller was a ‘prequel’ to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (written in 1847). The film included an examination of racial issues, twisted romance, loyalty, and sexual betrayal.
It explained (or conjectured) the backstory about how Mr. Rochester’s wife in the Caribbean (Jamaica), a white sugar heiress named Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason in the Bronte novel), became a locked-up madwoman in England.
The main characters in the plot set in mid-1840’s Jamaica were:
Antoinette Cosway (Karina Lombard) – an aristocratic, convent-schooled Creole, and openly-sexual West Indies sugar plantation heiress
Edward Rochester (Nathaniel Parker), a repressed and brittle Englishman, a fortune hunter, and not agreeable with the sweltering tropics
Antoinette’s mother was Jamaican plantation-owning English mother Annette Cosway (Rachel Ward), an alcoholic who had married rich Paul Mason (Michael York) from England, an insensitive Britisher who distrusted the locals. A destructive family home fire started by the resentful, rebellious and angry natives (ex-slaves) burned the plantation down, and Annette went insane. Her husband locked her up in an island sanitarium and abandoned her for England, although Antoinette believed that her mother had died.
Starved for love, Antoinette was often engaged in erotic, sweaty and passionate scenes with Edward. At one point during love-making, Edward mused (in voice-over) that he was “hungry” for her, but she was a “stranger” whom he couldn’t really love:
“She is still a stranger to me. A stranger who does not think or feel as I do. I am hungry for her, but I don’t understand her.”
Antoinette confessed: “Why do you make me want to live? Suppose the happiness was taken away when I wasn’t looking. I’m not used to happiness,” although she accepted an arranged marriage to Rochester, who wanted her for her dowry (and land holdings). However, she feared that her fate would be the same as her mother – abandoned and mad – and she did eventually go insane.
When her marriage to Edward almost immediately didn’t go well, Antoinette requested that her former nanny, a Martinique woman named Christophene (Claudia Robinson), a voodoo priestess, concoct a love potion to give to Edward. Although the elixir was effective, Edward thought he had been poisoned. It caused him to vengefully cheat on the veranda with the black maid Amelie (Rowena King) within earshot of Antoinette in the bedroom. She reacted like a lunatic and attacked Edward – convincing him of the self-fulfilling prophecy that she would go mad.
Director: John Duigan