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SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

Firelight

The works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters notwithstanding, transplanting hot-button feminist issues to the humid ambiance of 19th-century melodrama can embarrass the best-intended filmmakers. Even the exceptions, like Sandra Goldbacher's shrewd The Governess, don't quite overcome their essential iconoclasm. In William Nicholson's Firelight, however, iconoclasm gives way to irrelevance. Although it's marked by strong performances and some haunting imagery, dimness dominates the implausible, contrived story and the half-baked ideas.

Hidden behind a screen in a dour sitting room, speaking through a maidservant, Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane) interviews Swiss governess Elizabeth (Sophie Marceau) for the unlikely position of surrogate mother. His wife has been in a coma for years after an accident (amazing advances in life support back then), and he feels compelled to provide an heir (or perhaps he just wants to get laid). So he must forgo all propriety and engage in intimate relations with a stranger for a few days. Elizabeth, whose father is deeply in debt, coldly accepts the job -- for the money, to be sure, but in her brave jutting jaw one can sense an early blow against the patriarchy.

So much for subtext. They fall in love, of course; she gives up the child, but years later, she tracks Charles down and shows up at his doorstep as his daughter's new governess. It's not a happy household, as the spirit of his moribund wife hovers over all like the shade in Rebecca, and the daughter has grown into a spoiled and joyless changeling who seeks refuge in a surreal gazebo in a lake. What follows has less to do with power and justice than the crassest Victorian sentimentality, as Elizabeth's maternal and spousal devotion begins a healing process. The title refers to the time, according to Elizabeth, when no rules apply and nothing that happens matters. For this Firelight, only the second condition applies.

-- Peter Keough


54

Someone once purred that if you remembered you had a good time at Studio 54, then, darling, you didn't have a good time. In that case, it's apropos that writer/director Mark Christopher's elegy to the legendary Manhattan nightclub is dreadfully unmemorable.

Call it Boogie Nights: The Disco Remix. Indeed, the similarities between Christopher's feature debut and last year's paean to porn are as insistent as a strobe light. Ryan Phillippe (I Know What You Did Last Summer) galumphs as Shane, a Jersey City hunk with big pecs and dreams to match. Intent on ditching his Garden State roots -- "I wanna be a New Yawka" -- he dances into this glittering, late-'70s bacchanal of drugs, sex, and Donna Summer. His blank sensuality catches the coke-glazed eye of smarmy 54 owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), and soon Shane's shirtless, tending bar and learning the ropes from his extended Studio family, coat-check girl (Salma Hayek) and her busboy husband (Breckin Meyer). But just as ambitions swell to hubristic proportions, along come the finger-wagging '80s to impart a lesson about decadence.

What this quaalude-laced fable tells us -- over and over again in dunderheaded narration by Phillippe -- is that you can't escape the reality of who you are. And neither can 54. Phillippe can't match the heartbreaking collision of earnest naïveté and unchecked ambition of Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; and Hayek, though charismatic, is no Julianne Moore. Meanwhile, Neve Campbell, as Phillippe's love interest, looks as if she were attending the senior prom rather than the world's most orgiastic club.

It's Austin Powers's Myers as Rubell, his first dramatic role, who rescues the film from being just an excuse for a groovy soundtrack. With his salacious hyena grin and Butthead-inflected snicker, the over-the-top Myers comes closest to embodying the dissipated mythos of the '70s hotspot. Otherwise predictable and surprisingly unsexy, 54 has all the intrigue of a night on Lansdowne Street.

-- Alicia Potter



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