The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: William Nicholson

REVIEWED: 09-08-98

The works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters notwithstanding, transplanting hot-button feminist issues to the humid ambiance of 19th-century melodrama can embarrass the best-intended filmmakers. Even the exceptions, like Sandra Goldbacher's shrewd The Governess, don't quite overcome their essential iconoclasm. In William Nicholson's Firelight, however, iconoclasm gives way to irrelevance. Although it's marked by strong performances and some haunting imagery, dimness dominates the implausible, contrived story and the half-baked ideas.

Hidden behind a screen in a dour sitting room, speaking through a maidservant, Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane) interviews Swiss governess Elizabeth (Sophie Marceau) for the unlikely position of surrogate mother. His wife has been in a coma for years after an accident (amazing advances in life support back then), and he feels compelled to provide an heir (or perhaps he just wants to get laid). So he must forgo all propriety and engage in intimate relations with a stranger for a few days. Elizabeth, whose father is deeply in debt, coldly accepts the job -- for the money, to be sure, but in her brave jutting jaw one can sense an early blow against the patriarchy.

So much for subtext. They fall in love, of course; she gives up the child, but years later, she tracks Charles down and shows up at his doorstep as his daughter's new governess. It's not a happy household, as the spirit of his moribund wife hovers over all like the shade in Rebecca, and the daughter has grown into a spoiled and joyless changeling who seeks refuge in a surreal gazebo in a lake. What follows has less to do with power and justice than the crassest Victorian sentimentality, as Elizabeth's maternal and spousal devotion begins a healing process. The title refers to the time, according to Elizabeth, when no rules apply and nothing that happens matters. For this Firelight, only the second condition applies.

--Peter Keough

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