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FW Weekly How Time Drags

Minnie Driver is the only bright light in the darkness that is 'The Governess'

By Joe Leydon

AUGUST 17, 1998:  There are echoes of The Piano and hints of Jane Eyre throughout The Governess, Sandra Goldbacher's handsomely produced period drama about a woman who discovers the hard way just how far ahead of her time she really is. Minnie Driver gives a vividly detailed and deeply felt performance in the lead role, and it shouldn't be held against her that the film is too pallid and prosaic to be worthy of her.

Driver persuasively plays Rosina Da Silva, the oldest daughter of a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family in 1840s London. Her mother is eager for Rosina to attract a suitably affluent husband - "Try not to look so tall, my dear," she warns her daughter during a party where eligible bachelors abound - but her doting father is more than willing to encourage her independent spirit. In her most audacious daydreams, Rosina yearns for a life in the theater. But she is forced to play her most challenging role in real life after her father is murdered by a robber, and her family plunges into debt.

Rather than accept an arranged marriage to a much older merchant, Rosina disguises her Jewishness - a necessary ploy, she believes, to circumvent the widespread anti-Semitism in her world - and re-invents herself as a Protestant governess named Mary Blackchurch. She accepts a position on the remote Scottish isle of Arran, where she finds herself in the politely repressed household of the Cavendish family.

Mrs. Cavendish (Harriet Walker) is a skittish, self-dramatizing woman who's painfully aware of the distance between herself and her husband, Charles (Tom Wilkinson of The Full Monty), a gentleman inventor. While he spends most of his time locked up in his laboratory, absorbed in his experiments with "photogenic paper," and his wife wallows in her own loneliness, the new governess is left to care for their spoiled young daughter, Clementina (Florence Hoath).

Rosina - well, OK, Mary - is curious enough to take an interest in Charles' work, and bright enough to offer some valuable suggestions. For quite some time, Charles has struggled to find a method for "fixing" the images he records on paper, so they won't fade away. The longer they work together, the more difficult it becomes for them to ignore that something else is developing. Always true to her nature, even while she's living under another name, Mary makes the first move. Charles quickly responds - and then just as quickly has second thoughts. Driver is arrestingly effective at conveying the heedless passion of a spirited woman who flings herself into an affair she mistakes as true and undying love. Ironically, and tragically, her exuberance stands in stark contrast to the guilt-ridden timorousness expressed by Wilkinson, who plays Charles as a man who, unlike Mary, is very much of his time. He is not so much her seducer as her reluctant co-conspirator. "I don't want to have the feelings I have," he wails, later adding: "You consume me. I cannot be consumed."

All of which makes The Governess sound a great deal more compelling than it ever manages to be. To her credit, Goldbacher avoids the obvious by refusing to render her central characters merely as victim and villain. But she is unable to elevate her drama above the level of fancy-dress soap opera. Worse, she separates the flights of passion with long, mopey stretches of arid dullness that are meant to evoke a claustrophobic mood, but serve only to make the audience aware of how slowly time is passing.

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