The Governess, written and directed by the new filmmaker Sandra Goldbacher, is a film of uncommon beauty. Starring Minnie Driver as Rosina da Silva, the movie explores the undeniable connections between art and passion.
Rosina is the privileged eldest daughter of a prominent family within the Sephardic Jewish community of 1840’s London. When her father dies suddenly, she is faced with the distasteful prospect of an arranged marriage in order to avoid debt. To eschew such a marriage, the independent and reckless Rosina changes her name and takes a job as a governess for the eccentric Cavendish family in rural Scotland.
Overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness in her newly adopted home, Rosina finds solace in a buddding friendship with Mr. Charles Cavendish (Tom Wilkinson of The Full Monty). Charles, an isolated and obsessive photographer, has been frustrated with his inability to fixate his photographs. Rosina takes an active interest in Charles’ art; before long her passions overwhelm Charles and a sexual relationship ensues.
The affair is further complicated with the return of the family’s black sheep son, Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who promptly falls in love with Rosina, unaware of her feelings for his father. The movie accelerates to an inevitable climax, gently laying out the subsequent events as they unwind.
The analogy between photography and life is beautifully stressed, although perhaps a bit too obvious in its development. However, the analogy is so apt that one cannot help but admire the connections Goldbacher makes. Not only does photographic imagery point to Rosina’s desire to capture fleeting emotions, but it also serves as an exemplar of the differences between Charles and Rosina. Rosina is an imaginative and unconventional woman, unafraid of expressing herself. Her demands that Charles photograph her play-acting such femme fatales as Salome and Judith show her unconventional disdain for limits. Charles, on the other hand, is a realistic, inert character who refuses to succumb to Rosina’s wilder indulgences.
The film never loses focus on the development of the main character. Driver’s interpretation of Rosina is both intimate and powerful; never once does she shy away or succumb to delicacy. Rosina is something of a chameleon, always adapting to her environment; the deception of assuming a false name and lifestyle is a challenge she cannot resist. However, Mary is as unafraid as Rosina to express her feelings honestly and without regret. Driver’s integrity of emotion instills Rosina’s character with a genuine warmth.
Wilkinson is also excellent as the repressed Charles. Aiming to protect himself from feelings he cannot conquer, he strikes out blindly at Rosina. Wilkinson poignantly depicts Charles’ inner conflict, frequently sending Rosina away, only to return later.
The supporting cast is, on the whole, very good. Walters as the simpering Mrs. Cavendish is particularly well-cast. However, the overblown dramatics of Rhys-Meyers as the passionate Henry are for the most part too creepy to be believable. The film seems to want to capitalize on his brooding looks, but neither he nor his character is particularly appealing.
The film score by Edward Shearmen, who received acclaim for his Wings of the Dove score, adds intrigue and mystery to the movie. Exquisitely erotic, it personifies Rosina’s sexual awakening, heightening the experience in a subtle manner.
The cinematography is strangely dark, almost as if it were shot through a black-and-white camera; this could be to augment the black-and-white photographs that Rosina and Charles produce together. Goldbacher was going for an uncomfortable feel, and the result is at once alienating and intriguing. The sparse, cold landscape of the Scottish island can almost be felt as a physical chill through shots of peaking waves and swaying brush.
This film is definitely not your typical Jane Eyre love story. Instead, it has a darker plot, suffused with emotions that threaten to engulf the lovers. An excellent effort by Goldbacher, it is truly a movie worth viewing.