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The Boston Phoenix Photo Op

Minnie Driver develops nicely

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 10, 1998:  The gaze, so say some feminist critics, means power, at least in the movies. The possessor of the eye or camera that looks determines the image, which supersedes the object. Invariably the gaze is male, the object female (though the object has its own power), and the process mirrors the male-dominated ways of our civilization. When a woman gets the upper hand, or eye, however, as is the case in Sandra Goldbacher's provocative and polished debut, The Governess, subversive high jinks ensue. Buoyed by a radiant, multilayered performance by Minnie Driver (her finest to date), a lush, evocatively photographed period setting, and Goldbacher's sly if anachronistic aesthetic and political agenda, The Governess overcomes its excessive, somewhat schematized ambitions.

A fine time for dead white males, Britain of the Early Victorian era could be tough on women, particularly Jewish women. Rosina Da Silva (Driver), however, is a woman ahead of her time. Well versed in art and literature and iconoclastic in temperament, she delights and scandalizes her cousin with her thoughts on semen (here, in the spirit of There's Something About Mary, compared to semolina). Her carefree days come to an abrupt end when her father is murdered by anti-Semites and it falls on her to salvage the family finances by marrying an elderly fishmonger.

Inspired perhaps by her readings of the Brontë sisters, Rosina instead changes her name to Mary Blackchurch and advertises for a governess position. She gets a response from the Cavendish estate on the Isle of Skye, which seems at first a combination of The Addams Family and Cold Comfort Farm. Phthisic, insinuating, and whiny, Mrs. Cavendish (Harriet Walter) clearly loathes her cold and isolated abode and everything else about her family. Her young daughter and Mary's charge, Clementina (a refreshingly uncute Florence Hoath), is prone to painful practical jokes and morbid preoccupations, Wednesday Addams by way of Edward Gorey. And young Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) of the unfortunate Byronic affectations has recently been sent down from Oxford for ostentatious dissipation.

This household Goldbacher depicts with wry black humor from the bemused point of view of Mary/Rosina, who's beginning to wonder about the wisdom of trying to be assimilated into the world of meshuggenah gentiles. She's intrigued, though, by Mr. Cavendish (Tom Wilkinson) and his pre-Daguerreotype photography experiments. (This would have to be happening in the late 1830s, so by reading the Brontë sisters, who were first published in 1846, Rosina is a woman way ahead of her time.) He's managed to record images by prolonged exposures with a box camera but has not yet worked out how to preserve them; they fade within hours. First attracting his attention by posing outside the window from which he directs his camera, Mary stirs more than scientific curiosity in Cavendish's haggard breast.

She wins his respect, and perhaps his heart, after she serendipitously figures out the solution to his problem: covertly conducting a Passover ritual in her room, she spills salt water on a photograph and finds it intact the next morning. It's one of the film's more ingenious conceits; the bitter tears of loss for her father and her heritage, the secret consolations of memory, and the fixtures of a denied tradition combine to provide the key to the preservation of passing experience.

Another fortunate conceit is Mary's increasingly intense and complicated relationship with Cavendish. The two collaborate as equals on his project, but when she volunteers to model for his camera, photography progresses to the next logical step of pornography, and memory takes a back seat to desire. When Mary reverses the process, however, and photographs Cavendish (Wilkinson here bares what was only partial in The Full Monty), the balance of power is disrupted, and Cavendish turns on her his rediscovered patriarchal (in the Biblical as well as the feminist sense) wrath.

Adept though Gold bacher is in intertwining illuminating subtext with melodrama, in the end she takes on too much: a subplot with a grandiosely lovestruck Henry (though Rhys Meyers is hilarious and touching) and a coda involving a cholera epidemic prove diverting but burdensome. Yet the ill-matched couple of Driver and Wilkinson are one of the most engaging and convincing in recent movies, and Driver, her features protean yet luminescent as a Botticelli, establishes herself as one of the screen's more charismatic presences. Whether the gaze means power or not, you won't be able to take your eyes off her.

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