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Yearning Lips

[whitespace] Firelight Austerity Plan: Stephen Dillane and Sophie Marceau's passion is as icy as a Siberian winter in 'Firelight.'

Keith Hamshere

The heat is off in English 'Firelight'

By Richard von Busack

MAYBE IT'S A SIGN of the millennium that the movies are running out of stories. Mere weeks after the release of The Governess comes yet another Gothic romance about a yearning governess and her cruelly married master. This time, the longing woman is Sophie Marceau, the Sphinx without a riddle, last seen in Bernard Rose's creaky Anna Karenina. The look of Firelight is as austere as austerity itself. It's set at an English country estate, though you'd swear it was January in Siberia.

Duty holds the manor in a more adamantine grip than even Jack Frost himself. The young lord Charles (Stephen Dillane) is married to a vegetable wife, insensible and bedridden since a riding accident. To sire an heir, Charles hired a Swiss woman in dire financial straits as a surrogate mother, under conditions of strict secrecy. Years pass; the heir (a daughter, not what you'd really call an heir in those days, but we'll let this pass) is now 7. Louisa (Dominique Belcourt) is a holy terror who has burned out three nannies in a year. And now, on Charles' doorstep arrives a moody young governess named Elisabeth (Marceau)--yes, it's the long-lost Swiss mother, hired before Charles can learn about it and protest. And this is no Lewinskian surprise; yes, Charles used the woman for three days seven years ago--but it was more than just reproductive sex, it was a real affair. Women just can't help loving the man who buys them and impregnates them, I suppose.

Elisabeth tames the brat with love, tutoring her with hand-painted flash cards. Meanwhile, Charles longs for Elisabeth, suffering the pangs of conscience. And you wonder why. The 1840s, when this is set, was the decade right before the Victorian glacier plowed over public morals. Moreover, Charles' father, Lord Clare (Joss Ackland), the man who holds the purse strings, is very much a cad of the old school; he'd been exhorting his son to take a mistress for years. Ackland, as the fat old rake Clare, is the one ray of sunshine in this gloomy romance. He is the only one who seems to be enjoying himself; and he's the only one sensible enough to suggest cutting through Charles and Elisabeth's charade.

Director/writer William Nicholson, who previously scripted Shadowlands, justifies Charles' tender feelings as a rebellion against his reprobate father. He's less believable when providing obstacles to Elisabeth and Charles' happiness--apparently, Charles is preserving the reputation of his comatose wife, who seems well beyond questions of reputation. Firelight gets its title from a story Elisabeth tells Louisa, about how the rules of time and behavior are suspended in a room lit by the fireplace. It was in a firelit room that she, Louisa, was conceived, though of course Elisabeth doesn't tell the child that. But the two principals in this English import are far too damp for combustion. Dillane, Horatio in Mel Gibson's Hamlet, prowls around in a stodgy preacher's hat studying his Southdown sheep; Marceau makes suffering eyes at her daughter, breathing heavily in her whalebone corset. Firelight itself seems wrapped in whalebone.

Firelight (R; 105 min.), directed and written by William Nicholson, photographed by Nic Morris and staring Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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