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The Boston Phoenix Driver's Circle

Minnie gets to play a real character again

By Gary Susman

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Minnie Driver has endured Hollywood's idea of versatility. After Circle of Friends made the London-born actress a star, she came to America and played Stanley Tucci's girlfriend in Big Night, John Cusack's girlfriend in Grosse Pointe Blank, and Matt Damon's girlfriend in Good Will Hunting (at least she wrested an Oscar nomination out of that role). Now, in The Governess, which will open in Boston next week, she gets to be a complex protagonist again. Rosina is a well-educated Jew who poses as a gentile to get a job in Victorian Scotland, working as a governess for a little girl (Florence Hoath) whose inventor father (Tom Wilkinson) and college-age brother (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) are taken with Rosina's intelligence, mystery, and beauty.

Driver isn't complaining, exactly, that her pre-Governess roles haven't used her full range. "There's always the knowledge that, well, one day, that part will come along where I will get to use all of it, and then I will shut up. You just bide your time and wait, or you play a part like the one in Good Will Hunting where there's not that much on the page but you can make something out of it. You can never underestimate the power of even one scene in a film if you do the right thing with it.

"But it was wonderful in The Governess to be in every single scene and to have that breadth. That really is incredibly gratifying as an actor. It's not so much the egoistic thing of, 'Oh, I'm on the screen all the time.' It's about having the chance to really develop in front of an audience instead of just having the audience hear from the male characters how much that woman has changed. I mean, you see her in a different dress, and apparently she's made some huge change in her life."

The Governess marks the feature debut of writer/director Sandra Goldbacher, a former BBC documentary filmmaker. Her own heritage inspired the creation of Rosina: her father is an Italian Jew, and her mother is from the Isle of Skye, where the movie takes place. Goldbacher imagined Rosina by writing her diary. She explains, "I grew up on the novels of the Brontë sisters, those 19th-century novels, and I just loved these strong, passionate heroines at the center of them. But in those novels, the heroines always ended up either being punished and dying horrible deaths from smallpox or consumption, or getting married, and that was the end of it, and you never knew more about the problems of the marriage or the sexuality of it. So I wanted to have a strong, passionate woman but give it a sensibility where you could see the choices she was facing. And that prompted me to start writing this diary. I always knew I was going to develop it into a screenplay. It was just a way for me to take myself into that world."

Rosina's tale recalls Jane Campion's The Piano, another story of a Victorian woman who takes control of her own destiny, sexuality, and creativity. Goldbacher says that women artists are telling such stories now because they weren't allowed to then. "I think there were a lot of unsung women. There were all those novels about strong female characters written by women, but they weren't allowed to let them develop because of the forms of the time."

Driver says these movies show the inadequacy of our received notions about the Victorian era, "drinking tea, and sitting in a corset, and not really talking about anything, and syphilis. But this story, clearly this kind of stuff was going on. The diaries that I read of Victorian governesses, these young girls that would come from the middle of nowhere, their parents would put them on the carriage with a cheese sandwich, and that would be the last they would see of them for 15 years. It was just incredible, the stuff that went on. But we're so spoon-fed a kind of history. You forget there are actual human stories within that."

The film also resembles The Piano in that its sexuality, seen through a woman's gaze, displays a lot more male nudity than in most movies. "There's a similar clothes-off theme, isn't there," agrees Wilkinson, who shows a lot more here than he did as the lawn-gnome-collecting stripper in The Full Monty.

Rhys Meyers also has a nude scene, in which his lovesick young man writhes naked in the surf, though little is shown because, he says, "that ocean was so fucking cold. Whatever I had down around my area here never came out. No matter how you magnify that frame, you're not going to see a whole lot of anything because there's a whole lot of nothing there. I thought, 'Aw, come on! I wanted this big sword. What happened to you? Where were you from last Friday night?' "


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