Who would have guessed that a movie called Firelight could give off so little glow? William Nicholson, the screenwriter of Shadowlands (1993) making his directorial debut here, isn't attempting to be ironic. He wants to create a love story in which the ardor pours through the confines of upper-class decorum in mid-1800s England. But he doesn't have the temperament for ardor; he's too busy offering us close-ups of glowing fireplaces and smoldering brows. He's too literal-minded to be a true sensualist.
The plot has its Harlequin-novel aspects. Elisabeth (Sophie Marceau), a Swiss governess, is secretly hired by Charles (Stephen Dillane), the only son of a cantankerous British aristocrat (Joss Ackland), to bear his heir. Charles' wife is a bedridden, mute invalid, so--in his mind anyway--what other choice does he have? Elisabeth, who needs the money to pay off her father's debts, agrees to stay far away from Charles and their daughter, but seven years later she tracks them down and, with Charles temporarily gone from his estate, applies for and gets the job as governess. Outraged at first, Charles gradually begins to feel the firelight. Elisabeth, after all, is a looker, and their procreative session seven years before was not without its hot points.
Elisabeth feels the same stirrings, though it's kind of hard to tell. She never cracks a smile for the entire movie. When she is introduced to the 7-year-old Louisa (Dominique Belcourt) as the new governess, it should be a transcendent moment. But Louisa is a spoiled brat, and Elisabeth, seeing what must be done, turns into a martinet. Their tutoring sessions are like a starched variation on the Anne Sullivan-Helen Keller tantrums in The Miracle Worker. Louisa, of course, has all her senses, but she's blind in one crucial aspect: She does not know that her nemesis is her mother. We wait for what seems like an eternity until she learns the truth.
These banked-fire romances work only if there's a fire to bank. Nicholson must realize he's a stuffed shirt, because he works in a couple of steamy breast-and-thigh couplings between the two conscience-tossed lovers. A little skin certainly helps liven things up, though the effect isn't on a much higher level than the gratuitous humping one gets in more conventional Hollywood fare.
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Nicholson is quoted in the press kit as saying, "I had to go back to a place and time when there were forces stronger than individual desires. Contemporary love stories are relationship stories because the obstacles that prevent people from loving each other are essentially self-induced." This is a rather large statement coming from a Brit whose homeland is not exactly free from class restrictions. It's a false position to assume that modern society no longer restricts true love, or that, more to the point, the 1800s was a class-based era of thwarted desire. There was plenty of boundary-crossing back then, and in any case the thwarted passions in Firelight have very little to do with class; they have everything to do with the fact that Charles wanted an heir his wife couldn't provide. Certainly the other men in the movie don't have a problem with Elisabeth: Charles' father arches his fervid eyebrow when he first sees her; Charles' American business partner (Kevin Anderson) actually proposes marriage.
Charles is wound tight with guilt, but Nicholson makes it easy for us to sympathize with him by making his wife essentially a zombie. I mean, with Sophie Marceau flitting through the place, what's a poor guy to do? Marceau isn't a terribly expressive actress, but she has a fluid beauty similar to Isabelle Adjani's. She at least makes Charles' desire understandable--even forgivable. But Nicholson is after more than a physical union here. He also wants to present these two as soul mates, and that's where the movie falls with a thud. They both have so little interior life that it's impossible to imagine what they might talk about when they're not looking deeply into each other's corneas. We have to accept as a given that Charles and Elisabeth are a perfect match, and that's just too much to ask. Away from the firelight, in the cold light of day, they just seem like arranged lovers in a rickety, old-fashioned romance--a lot closer to embers than firelight.
Directed and written by William Nicholson. Starring Sophie Marceau, Stephen Dillane, Kevin Anderson, and Dominique Belcourt. Opens Friday.