1998, R, 124 min. Directed by Sandra Goldbacher. Starring Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Harriet Walter, Florence Hoath, Bruce Myers, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 28, 1998
This starring role is something of a change of pace for Minnie Driver, the British actress who of late has become best known for always playing the “best-guy's gal” in such American movies as Sleepers, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Good Will Hunting. Here she returns to Britain to play the title role of “the governess” in writer-director Sandra Goldbacher's first feature film. The film is an atmospheric work, a period piece set in the 1840s during the dawn of the Age of Photography with a dense and moody visual style that befits its Brönte-esque subject matter. Driver plays an independent-minded young woman named Rosina, who is the eldest daughter in a family of Sephardic Jews in London. The film's opening scenes of the cloistered, almost subterranean lifestyle of the city's sizable Jewish population are fascinating to observe. Living within the heart of one of the world's greatest cities, the Jewish community walks a fine line between urban assimilation and a sequestered but vibrant religious and cultural identity. Rosina's family is plunged into sudden financial debt when her father is murdered and his estate is discovered to have been eaten away by a secret gambling habit. The situation prompts Rosina to seek employment in order to support her family. Securing a job as a governess for the Cavendish family, who live on a remote Scottish island, Rosina uses the best of her play-acting skills to don a new identity as Mary Blackchurch (of swarthy Italian descent). It is a world completely alien to her -- from the rough-hewn landscape to the icy reserve of the Cavendish household. Her young charge Clementina (Hoath) is a little brat, the lady of the house (Walter) is a frustrated spouse, the older son (Rhys Meyers) is a disgraced university student who becomes immediately smitten with Mary, and patriarch Charles Cavendish (Wilkinson) is a man exclusively absorbed in his scientific studies in which he seeks to discover a chemical fixative that will commit photographic images to paper. Mary becomes intrigued by his experiments and the man himself and in time she not only becomes the one to accidentally discover the salt-water fixative process that furthers his work but also engages in an illicit sexual liaison with her employer. In many ways, The Governess is standard-issue bodice-ripper, although to its credit the resolution of the story's central untenable situation is uncommon and its intriguing coda sets up Rosina/Mary as a proto-feminist heroine who has reclaimed her Jewish identity. The themes established in The Governess resound throughout: the conscious assumption of identities, the gap between “fixed” images and reality, and the search for a fixative that will secure the elusive qualities of art and love. At times, The Governess slips into too modern a tone and language to be completely believable, and Driver's facial expression conveys more inscrutability than emotional range, making sequences dally along with little gained knowledge or narrative advancement. Yet, the film remains in the mind like a snapshot, immutably fixed and evocative.