The heroine of The Governess is a young Jewish woman--a "Jewess," in the parlance of 1840s London, in which the first scenes of the film are set. I thought that this drama, the feature debut of the young writer-director Sandra Goldbacher, might explore a chapter in Britain's long, abysmal, and little-noted history of anti-Semitism. But the depiction of the Jewish community in 19th-century England is slight. Jewishness is not really the film's focus, it's merely what identifies the heroine as an outsider. This is a tale of what used to be known, in old-school American racial melodramas, as "passing."
Rosina (Minnie Driver) lives in prosperous middle-class comfort in a London enclave of the Sephardi, non-Yiddish-speaking Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction. She's a good-humored, imaginative girl with a playful yet direct manner; she wants to be an actress. The movie is about how, in a bizarre sort of way, she gets her chance: Her adored and adoring father (Bruce Myers) dies violently, and Rosina must assume the role of a Gentile to support her family.
Posing as "Mary Blackchurch," she secures a job as the governess for the Cavendishes, a creepy, wealthy Scottish family that lives on the Isle of Skye. Dropped off on the island and driven to the big, brooding estate by a silent, scarf-cloaked carriage driver (think of Renfield in Dracula), she's soon a hit with the whole unhappy clan. Her charge, the sneaky little daughter (Florence Hoath), puts dead mice in her bed, but once Rosina threatens her with similar treatment, the child knows she's found a soul mate. The vaporous wife (Harriet Walter), bored beyond measure by provincial life and her husband's distance, titters with envious misery when she hears about London from the cosmopolitan Rosina. And the son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who's been kicked out of Oxford for whoring in an opium den, takes one look at Rosina's dark exoticism and can think of little else.
But it's the loner father--quiet, gentlemanly Charles Cavendish--who's a hit with Rosina; she's starved for a father figure. Charles, played by that attractive Tom Wilkinson (the broke foreman Gerald in The Full Monty), is a scientist of some sort, and he's working on a photographic process with which to classify biological specimens. He's not used to the women in his life taking any interest in his work, so when Rosina offers to help him in his experiments, she quickly becomes his intimate friend, and they search together for a means of "fixing" photographic images so that they won't fade.
While surreptitiously performing a Seder, Rosina inadvertently drops some salt water on an emulsion and it becomes permanent. Once she reveals her discovery to Charles, we see that he's not such a puttering nerd. He grows wild-eyed with ambition--and with terror that his rivals, Daguerre among them, will go public first.
It's Rosina, however, who sees the aesthetic possibilities in photography. She gets Charles to take pictures of her posed as Biblical women. You'd think he'd get suspicious when she insists on posing as Esther or Salome. When at last, inevitably, they consummate their affair, she covers her face and upper body with gauze because the ancient Hebrews made love in this way--or so she's heard.
As a sociological study, there's nothing very deep about The Governess, but as a romantic gothic, it's really pretty good--subtle, sexy, and vigorously directed. Goldbacher and cinematographer Ashley Rowe blow the dust off the period-movie form, maintaining a brisk pace and creating a stark, dramatically colored visual palette. Best of all is Driver, decked out in Caroline Harris' striking, shiny-black costumes--she looks at times like an Emma Peel prototype. Even though Driver is playing a reckless-hearted, home-wrecking little temptress, she's at her most alluring--and most likable. I think that stems from the unfussy simplicity of her acting style, and because she refuses to play Rosina as a victim. She's a self-delighted seducer.
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The Governess does go through a dreary patch in the second half, as Charles grows more and more tormented by the unaccustomed mix of guilt, lust and ambition, and Rosina grows more obsessively infatuated, then panicky when he tries to distance himself from her. The tempestuous scenes of quarrel and rejection and supplication between the two lovers show the downside of the modernity in Goldbacher's approach; they go round and round, like the interminable argument scenes in contemporary film dramas about relationships (and in real-life relationships). The anachronisms get to be a bit much, too: You have to smile when Charles' photographic style quickly evolves from uninflected taxonomy to art-porno worthy of Mapplethorpe.
But by the end, Goldbacher recovers. The Governess isn't altogether satisfying, but it doesn't leave a sour taste. It's not an important film, but don't be put off by the Merchant-Ivory look of the posters--it's dishy fun.
Directed by Sandra Goldbacher.