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Dark Lady

[whitespace] The Governess
Driven Duenna: Minnie Driver is a multi-talented femme fatale in 'The Governess.'

Minnie Driver plays a Victorian's secret in 'The Governess'

By Richard von Busack

WHEN I SEE Minnie Driver, I think, "Now, that's what Molly Bloom looked like." Unfortunately, the mass media fawns over pale, prehensile-lipped waifs like Liv, Gwyneth, Cameron and Calista. Because Driver isn't little, skinny and blonde, she might well have served her time playing girls-next-door until the mommy roles started trickling in.

Luckily, Driver has her first really erotic role in the English import The Governess. She plays something of a femme fatale, and director Sandra Goldbacher and photographer Ashley Rowe bring out her exotic colors. No wonder Driver leads a character to sigh, "I could drown in your hair." Me, too--if I hadn't choked on the dialogue first.

The opening scenes take place in Whitechapel during the mid-Victorian era, making one wonder if Driver isn't going to match steel with Jack the Ripper. But the East London district was a Jewish quarter then, and Driver's Rosina is the daughter of a well-off family. Her father drops dead. The change in the family fortunes leads Rosina to assume the name "Mary Blackchurch" and to sign on as governess with a Scots family on the Isle of Skye.

The trip north is a disappointment. Whitechapel looks intriguingly gas-lighted and sordid, and I wanted Driver to take it over and become the dark queen. Instead, she heads for a foggy mansion to cope with a disagreeable household.

Her charge is a spoiled, demanding little girl named Clementina (Florence Hoath). The "refahned" lady of the house, Mrs. Cavendish (Harriet Walter), has blonde sausage curls and punctuates her conversation with the annoying, humorless "ha-ha" of the Regency aristocrat. And the son, Henry (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is an apprentice decadent, who has been sent down from the university. When not mooning over the new governess, he's drinking too much and committing blasphemies.

The head of this unhappy family is Mr. Cavendish, toiling away in his laboratory on a photographic process. Tom Wilkinson, the gray-templed nude dancer in The Full Monty, plays Cavendish. The beard suits him, concealing his jowls and his less than rugged chin. (He also has a handsome tan, though where he got that in Scotland is anyone's guess.) With the beard, Wilkinson has a certain youthfulness that makes the romance between himself and Rosina more credible.

If only the rest of the story were quite so credible. Rosina/Mary may be an English Victorian woman, but she has not only a lover and a job but also a career--she becomes Cavendish's lab assistant. Rosina invents salt-print photography by accident, when she drops a cup of brine from a private Passover seder that she holds alone in her room. (When confronted with the discovery, Cavendish makes the noble old-movie declaration, "How could I have been so stupid? The solution was staring me right in the face!")

There is even room for betrayal, a secondary romance and a cholera epidemic. The arch-Victorian romanticism of lines like "I would let you suck the marrow from my bones" matches badly with the untroubled way Rosina sheds her clothes for the camera.

What is this movie about? Goldbacher's premise is--to quote Scarlett O'Hara--that a woman must have everything, thus Rosina grows a new skill and a new purpose with every scene. The Governess has only one skill, but it's a good one. The film may be barely believable, but it shows the audience that Driver can be a vamp, a villainness, a larger-than-life heroine.

The Governess (R; 114 min.), directed and written by Sandra Goldbacher, photographed by Ashley Rowe and starring Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro.

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