The Governess

            Really good movies transport the audience to another world. Whether
    its the futuristic vision of a
Blade Runner or the horrors of Nazi-era Germany
Schindler's List, films have a subtle yet powerful way of making unfamiliar
    realms accessible. Another example is
The Governess, which marks the
    feature debut of writer-director Sandra Goldbacher and the solidifies the
    standing of leading lady Minnie Driver.

            The Governess is a surprise (but nonetheless welcome) choice for
    summer release. This is a mood piece that shares more with Jane Campion's
The Piano than with Deep Impact or the more contemporary stories of
     Whatever and Slums of Beverly Hills. Like Campion, Goldbacher has mined
    Gothic stereotypes to explore the role of women in society—with of course
    resonance to the present day. On the surface, both
The Piano and
The Governess have numerous commonalities: strong-willed heroines,
    exotic settings (New Zealand in the former, the Scottish Highlands in the
    latter) and illicit romance. Each has its flaws, yet both are film of power
    and beauty.

            Goldbacher has drawn on her heritage as a Sephardic Jew to imagine
    what life must have been like for an intelligent woman in the
    mid-19th Century. Rosina (played by Minnie Driver) is presented as a curious,
    passionate girl. She confesses to her sister her desire to marry the man
    she thinks she loves rather than a husband chosen for her as well as her
    desire to emulate a relative who became an actress. Her bemused father
    indulges her and encourages her interests in education. Goldbacher
    delineates their world as one which is dark and somewhat hidden; they
    live in an almost subterranean world, but the rooms are rich with damask
    and reflected light.

            When her father is murdered, leaving the family in a precarious
    financial situation, Rosina formulates a plan to find work. As there are few
    opportunities open to women in that society, she places an advertisement
    seeking a position as a tutor. Also knowing the prejudice she would face,
    she recreates herself as 'Mary Blackchurch'. It is not long before she is
    summoned to a remote area of Scotland where she finds herself struggling
    to fit in with the Cavendish family. The mistress of the house is eternally
    bored. Mr. Cavendish disappears into his laboratory for hours at a time.
    And it takes all her efforts to win over Clementina, the precocious girl
    she has been hired to teach. Eventually, Rosina succumbs to her curiosity
    and investigates Cavendish's workroom, discovering his interest in and
    passion for the emerging art of photography.

            Gradually, she insinuates herself into his work, becoming his
    assistant and discovering a means to fix the image on paper (The scene
    in which this occurs is quite clever; Rosina is participating in a ritual of
    trying to eat an egg which has been pickled and spills some of the solution
    on one of Cavendish's photographs.) Eventually, Rosina and Cavendish are
    drawn to one another and they consummate their relationship. She willingly
    poses for his camera while he steadfastly (and chauvinistically) refuses
    to allow her to try her hand at picture-taking. Not one to take accept a
    negative, she takes advantage of her sleeping lover and takes several
    images of him in the nude. Her passion scares the older man and he
    pushes her away around the time his errant son arrives home, expelled
    from college. The younger Cavendish takes to the governess and discovers
    her secret, threatening to reveal her heritage to his bigoted parents. Faced
    with the collapse of the world she built, Rosina embraces her "otherness",
    reveals the affair and returns to her home in London. Finding her community
    early decimated in a cholera epidemic, she opens a photography studio
    to document the lives of her people.

            Throughout the film, Goldbacher exerts an evenhandedness that
    allows the story to seemingly unfold naturally. Anyone who has read the
    Brontë sisters or any other Gothic romance could predict that Rosina
    would fall in love with her employer. What Goldbacher does is maintain
    the suspense as to the outcome. The audience may know the affair is
    doomed but how it will be resolved remains in doubt until the end. The
    cinematography of Ashley Rowe is stunning, recreating early photographic
    effects through natural light. The dark, enclosed world of London is
    contrasted with the greens of the hills in Scotland. Goldbacher and her
    chief technical crew (especially costumer Caroline Harris and production
    designer Sarah Greenwood), however, have managed not to make this
    a standard "prettified" period piece. It is pleasing to the eye but their
    craft does not overpower the story.

            The film is also helped by the wonderful performances. In a role
    that was tailored for her, Minnie Driver is a revelation. I have to confess
    that except for
Circle of Friends, I have been unimpressed with her
    screen work. She clearly has talent but seemed relegated to girlfriend
    roles where she had one emotional scene (i.e.,
Good Will Hunting) and
    I also found her to be a somewhat chilly screen presence. In
The Governess, she delivers a nuanced portrayal of a girl maturing into
    womanhood. The audience watches the character grow from insecure and
    childish to ambitious and strong. It is a tour de force for this young
    actress (and she gets to display her prodigious vocal talents as well,
    tackling a Schubert lieder.)

            As the object of her affection, Tom Wilkinson matches her. As Driver's
    Rosina grows in passion, his Cavendish retreats, afraid of what she has
    unleashed in him. Perhaps best-known for playing Gerald, the factory
    foreman with some dance training, in
The Full Monty, Wilkinson offers
    a well-thought portrait of a man who is both ahead of his time and very
    much of his period and station in life.

            Harriet Walter is quite droll as the neurasthenic Mrs. Cavendish
    (her line delivery alone is almost worth the price of admission) while
    Florence Hoath is effective as Rosina's charge. As the trouble-making son,
    Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers adds another to his growing gallery of
    screen appearances. The handsome up-and-coming actor perfectly
    captures the youthful infatuation and petulant rebelliousness required of
    the character. And add to the growing list of impressive new directors
    — of either gender — the name of Sandra Goldbacher. With her clear-eyed
    approach to the material, she has given audiences an entertaining and
    haunting film.

                                    Rating:        B+
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.