Friday July 31, 1998
Sandra Goldbacher's tempestuous "The Governess" tries to tell a "Jane Eyre"-like tale with contemporary sexual candor, but it lacks crucial wit and irony. It affords a terrific role for Minnie Driver, who holds the film together with her talent, star presence and distinctive beauty, yet even she can't save it from its serious shortage of humor and detachment. As a first-time feature writer-director, Goldbacher has an ambitious story to tell but as a director lacks the experience to make it work as effectively as it might have.
Driver plays Rosina Da Silva, the eldest daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family in London in the 1840s. Too headstrong to submit to an arranged marriage after her father is murdered, leaving the family in dire financial straits (yet somehow still able to live in a lavishly appointed townhouse), Rosina is, however, not defiant enough to try for a life in the theater she so craves.
Understanding the bigotry of the times, she decides to call herself Mary Blackchurch and swiftly lands a job as a governess that takes her to the remote Scottish isle of Arran. Her employers, the Cavendishes, are not a happy family. Mrs. Cavendish (Harriet Walter), trapped in a lonely, narrow existence, has become a killjoy martyr, while her husband, Charles (Tom Wilkinson), spends most of his time in his laboratory experimenting on a photographic process.
Mary is to care for their petulant adolescent daughter (Florence Hoath) but, as a bright, ambitious young woman with a background in natural sciences unusual for the era, she is soon Cavendish's lab assistant as well. It's Mary who through chance and intuition hits upon a method for "fixing" Cavendish's photos so they won't fade away. And in turning his camera on Mary, Cavendish becomes turned on by her.
The heart of the film finds Mary and Charles falling in love as they start discovering the transforming potential of the camera. The camera changes Mary into a stunning temptress, a veritable Salome, and when she photographs Charles sleeping in the nude she captures a masculine beauty that he can only regard as profoundly threatening; he's a middle-aged family man already engaged in an adultery that inspires in him a deep self-loathing. Obviously, the situation is as volatile as any chemical in Cavendish's lab, and Goldbacher really lays it on when Cavendish's son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is sent down from university in disgrace, only to find himself overwhelmingly attracted to Mary.
A worldly, sophisticated director like Otto Preminger in his prime probably could have saved "The Governess" from escalating into soap opera, viewing human folly with a sort of knowing, bemused compassion. Driver, who steadfastly carries Rosina/Mary through every stormy stage of her self-discovery, is consistently better than the picture, as is Wilkinson, who ironically, here does "the full Monty" in a way he didn't do in the hit picture of the same name.
The Governess, 1998. R, for sexuality and nudity. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Sandra Goldbacher. Producer Sarah Curtis. Executive producer Sally Hibbin. Cinematographer Ashley Rowe. Editor Isabel Lorente. Costumes Caroline Harris. Music Edward Shearmur. Production designer Sarah Greenwood. Art director Philip Robinson. Set decorator Katie Spencer. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Minnie Driver as Rosina Da Silva/Mary Blackchurch. Tom Wilkinson as Charles Cavendish. Harriet Walter as Mrs. Cavendish. Florence Hoath as Clementina Cavendish. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry Cavendish.