Historical romances--particularly Brontë sisters-style bodice-rippers--are difficult enough to swallow on-screen without feeling as if you're gagging on a mothball. One colored with Hebrew Orthodoxy? That's going to be one camphoric matzo ball. But Minnie Driver, fresh from her star-securing supporting role in Good Will Hunting, gives a spirited turn as a 19th-century Sephardic Jew who must masquerade as a gentile in The Governess, a surprisingly luminous film that deftly stands somewhere between a Harlequin paperback and Jane Campion's The Piano.
The plot and character types are, at least outwardly, paint-by-numbers. In desperation, a bright, vibrant, strong-willed young lady poses as something she's not so she can work for a high-society family. Though it may be wealthy, she finds this higher society foreign, stagnant, and repressed--in short, dysfunctional. The youngest child is a precocious spoiled imp. The son is college-educated but emotionally immature. The matron of the family is snobbish and icy. The father is closed off, but he's a brilliant thinker. Mentally and sensually open, Driver's governess is drawn to this man who's at least twice her age. She opens him up intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally, and leads him into a fiery, forbidden, and ultimately doomed affair, all the while holding out against his son, who might be considered--at least in certain Victorian societal circles--a more "appropriate" suitor. But against this tepid backdrop, first-time feature writer and director Sandra Goldbacher and cinematographer Ashley Rowe fondle the details, and The Governess proves to be a pleasure.
The film opens in the world of the Sephardic Jewish community of London, a smoky, chanting, mystical underground society shunned and despised by even the street whores. So when Minnie Driver's Rosina tells in voice-over that she thinks the word "Jewess" must be emblazoned on her forehead, we get a feel for what that must mean. Yet while Goldbacher uses her documentary background to give an accurate depiction of the culture, she shows almost immediately that she has no intention of stuffing her film's style perfectly into the rigidly cinched corsets of the period. Rosina and her sister exchange a few sharp quips about the possible taste of semolina, an Anglican dish that they both theorize may look more than a bit like semen. "I'd like to see semen," Rosina announces matter-of-factly before clarifying that she wouldn't want to drink it. Her sister, amazed that Rosina has actually kissed a boy, breaks down into shocked giggles.
The scene almost seems an anachronism, but it gives The Governess a refreshing modern boot to the bloomers. This anachronistic vibe flows through everything in the film from pretext to text to subtext, from Rosina's obvious woman-ahead-of-her-time, '90s-style feminism, to the cinematography of the movie, to the underlying contemplation of the nature of the film process and efforts to accurately capture and preserve cherished moments in time.
When Rosina's father is murdered, leaving her family in debt, she avoids the obvious out, an arranged marriage, deciding she can support her family on her own. Though she yearns for a life in the theater, she seeks out one of the only occupations open to women other than prostitution--being a governess. England's rampant antisemitism gives her an ironic way to sort of fulfill her dream. She acts as if she's someone else, Mary Blackchurch, a proper Christian--even if she does wear a rather intriguing black leather Victorian dress--and lands a job with the Cavendishes on the desolate Scottish isle of Arran.
The Cavendishes prove to be a memorable take on the uptight clan. Clementina (delightful Florence Hoath), starved for attention, slips dead rats into Rosina's bed. Henry (Johnathan Rhys Meyers from the upcoming Velvet Goldmine), the son, arrives from being kicked out of school with a bad case of pouty lips, sullen puppy-dog eyes, and too much Byron and Shelley on the brain. Mrs. Cavendish (Harriet Walter), though she acts as if she "has a lemon up her posterior," just as we would expect, is suffering from as much neglect and boredom as her children. And Charles Cavendish (Tom Wilkinson of The Full Monty and Wilde) may as well be absent--he's always locked in his lab looking for ghosts.
In reality, Cavendish is a natural scientist working to perfect the fixation process of photography so the images he captures will no longer fade away. The photographic nature of his work is revealed in a wonderful stop-action scene in which Rosina stares up at the laboratory window in wonder and Clementina plays around her.
But The Governess is full of luscious cinematic moments, most centered around Charles and Rosina's involvement with the primitive camera obscura and how it leads them into an affair of love, lust, the mind, and boudoir pictures. (Yes, Wilkinson does finally deliver the full monty, and Minnie does show off a little of her Rubenesque wares.) Over and over an eye peers through the lens at scenes of beauty, and there's actual suspense over whether science and art will join this time in perfect chemistry to last forever. And it is this more than the barebacked story itself that makes The Governess an image worth preserving.
Written and directed by Sandra Goldbacher. Starring Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Florence Hoath, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Harriet Walker. Opens Friday.