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In 1838, lovely governess Elisabeth agrees to bear a child of anonymous English landowner, and he will in return pay her father's debt. At birth she, as agreed, gives up the child. Seven years later she is hired as governess to a girl on a remote Sussex estate. The father of the girl, Charles Godwin, turns out to be that anonymous landowner. So Elisabeth has to be her own daughter's governess, and she can't reveal the secret of her tie with little Louisa.Written by
In 1838, Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane) is an English gentleman sheep farmer with a comatose wife who hires a Swiss woman to have his baby. Godwin crosses the English Channel where Elisabeth Laurier (Sophie Maureau) responds to his ad for a surrogate mother. From the very beginning there's strong chemistry between them, which is partly why he hires her. She needs the money to help her father, who's in prison.
Godwin chooses three days to be with Elisabeth, presumably based on some sense of when she'll be fertile, and they meet at a resort hotel on the coast of England. The second night the chemistry between them ignites and -- by the third night -- they're madly in love. However, they dutifully repress their feelings and keep their business bargain. Godwin goes home and leaves her to have the baby.
Elisabeth gives birth to a baby girl who's taken from her before she even sees it. Since she's in love with the absent father, it's not hard to imagine what her pregnancy was like, nor the intense deprivation she experiences when both father and baby are lost to her. The scene fades from the image of the ivy growing outside the room where she gave birth to a watercolor painting of ivy, and then uses imagery from Elisabeth's painting/diary to keep track of her growing attachment for her daughter.
When the story switches back to Godwin, we're introduced to his father and also to an American sheep farmer who eventually proposes to Elisabeth. Godwin's father is a member of the aristocracy, and a profligate rake and spendthrift who has serial very-public love affairs. We learn that Godwin's wife is comatose after a riding accident that took place shortly after their marriage.
Godwin is a complex and intriguing character, and Stephen Dillane plays him to perfection. Dillane is so charismatic in this film that it makes me want to jump through the screen screaming! To my mind, the only performance that rivals Dillane's repressed but smoldering 19th century British-ness is Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
For Dillane's outstanding performance -- and all of the film's outstanding performances -- we have to thank William Nicholson's excellent writing and direction, along with the almost mystical cinematography of Nic Morris. As writer/director, Nicholson exploits the medium of film to do what only film can do, and that's weave a narrative subtext that propels the story through inter-dimensional dreamlike symbolism.
The accessible and yet subtle over-riding metaphor of firelight is carried throughout the film starting from the first moment when Godwin and Elisabeth are alone together. Godwin says something like, "I didn't realize that fire cast so much light. Do you mind?" This consideration for Elisabeth's modesty in such an awkward situation sparks the first sympathy between them. From that moment, it gets more and more difficult for them to pretend that they're just there for "business." Unwittingly, Godwin repeats the same sentence when they're alone together seven years later. Firelight and love are synonymous.
The subtext about human relationships -- especially relationships between husband and wife, children and parents-- is also explored through the imagery of Elisabeth's desire to "shout," the boathouse in the lake, breeding sheep, the estate, the sister-in-law (another exquisitely convincing performance by Lia Williams), Godwin's father, Elisabeth's family history, etc. Everything in this film is essential to a fully realized three-dimensional portrait of human relationships, and there's nothing extra. The film-making is just plain masterful.
And did I mention the costumes?
The best films go beyond the capacity of words to convey meaning. Sometimes half- remembered dreams leave us with a wordless understanding that evaporates like steam if we try too hard to explain it. For me, this film goes beyond words to convey meaning in the same way that dreams do.
Elisabeth shows up at Godwin's estate seven years after she gives birth to accept a position as governess to their daughter. Her interactions as incognito mother:teacher with beloved spoiled-child Luisa (another fine performance by Dominique Belcourt) are nothing short of poignant. There's a mini-Miracle Worker going on here. The scene were Godwin fights Elisabeth for the key to the schoolroom is incredible.
The other aspect that resonates with me personally is what this film says about the plight of women in 19th century Europe and how the exceptional courage and intelligence of one woman who believes in herself can overcome the hardship of circumstances. Women are only fifty percent of the human race but our issues as a "subgroup" of mankind have to take a back seat to all of the other subgroups where males are fighting other males for dominance with the common denominator that they all subjugate women.
I love the scene where Elisabeth convinces her daughter that education is the only way out of spiritual prison for a woman. I have always admired Sophie Marceau but she really goes beyond herself in this film, thanks to the exceptional script, direction, cinematography, costumes, and performances of her fellow actors. A beautiful and accomplished actress rises to the occasion of portraying a beautiful and accomplished woman struggling to survive in exceptional circumstances.
At first, we're confused about Elisabeth's appearance at Godwin's estate to become governess to his "adopted" daughter. When they met seven years before he had to hide his identity, so we never know if or how she finds out his name. However, Elisabeth eventually confesses that it took her seven years to find him, so we know that the narrative is driven by her desire and intentions. The moment when Godwin asks her if she regrets this is among the best in screen history, in my opinion. Since increasingly films live beyond their time, I have no doubt that someday this masterpiece will be viewed as a major film classic.
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