The Governess

Directed & written by Sandra Goldbacher

Principal Actors: Minnie Driver with Tom Wilkinson & Harriet Walter

Overview: The Governess takes Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre and turns it inside-out and upside-down.  Minnie Driver stars as “Rosina de Silva,” a girl from a prosperous middle-class Jewish family living in London circa 1830.  Rosina is beautiful and spirited.  She dreams of becoming an actress, but has, in fact, already reconciled herself to marrying the handsome young man who’s constantly flirting with her in the synagogue.  The apple of her father’s eye, a conventional future awaits her.

Then her father is murdered under mysterious circumstances, leaving the family with debts no one anticipated.  A rich suitor appears, but, despite her mother’s pleas, Rosina rejects him.  She’s secretly thrilled by the prospect of adventure, and using her fine-tuned theatrical imagination, she creates a new identity.  Dressed as “Mary Blackchurch,” a proper young Protestant woman with an English father and an Italian mother, Rosina begins the long trip to her new post in Scotland.

The Cavendish family lives on the remote Isle of Skye.  Charles Cavendish wants to make his name as a scientist, and is eagerly seeking the secret to fixing photographic images on paper.  Young Henry Cavendish has just been sent down from Oxford for unnamed transgressions.  Mrs. Cavendish can sense the allure of the dark good looks that Mary has inherited from her “Italian mother,” but she is powerless to prevent the inevitable conflagration.

Penny’s Review (4.5 out of 5 Penny Points)

The Internet Movie Database classifies The Governess as a “Romance,” and most reviewers concur, caught up in the period dress of the Mary-Charles-Henry triangle. But it should be obvious from my synopsis that “surface” is the very question addressed by this film rather than its answer. Right from the opening act, Director Goldbacher is announcing that things are never what they seem to be. Rosina’s father has created a solid, respectable exterior, but Rosina crosses the threshold from child to woman at the moment she realizes she has no idea who her father really was.

Charles’s laboratory is strictly off-limits to everyone, but Rosina sneaks in anyway and is immediately fascinated by the potential of his photographic research. Charles thinks he’s capturing reality, but Rosina knows otherwise. She intuitively understands that subjects can be posed and objects can be arranged. For Rosina, the science of photography is only a means to the goal of aesthetic expression.

The name Sandra Goldbacher was new to me the first time I saw this film. I only knew I was entranced by the sensuous cinematography and mesmerized by the hypnotic score.  (Rosina’s family is Sephardic, so her music is a world away from the Ashkenazy klezmer we typically think of as ethnic “Jewish music.”) I knew I was watching an overtly feminist film, but I was held in thrall by the actors: Minnie Driver’s beauty is ripe, and Tom Wilkinson (as Charles Cavendish) has never had a role this virile before.

Now I know that Sandra Goldbacher is an acclaimed director, well-known in Britain for her television commercials and BBC documentaries. The Governess, her first feature film, was nominated for numerous awards at multiple European film festivals, (The cinematographer, Ashley Rowe, won the Evening Standard British Film Award.) Only in America, it seems, was this film simply dismissed as a lady’s gothic.

Some films demand multiple viewings, and this is certainly one of them. For a beautifully written, academically-oriented discussion of the groundbreaking significance of The Governess check out “Capturing the Shadows of Ghosts: Mixed Media and the Female Gaze” by Lynette Felber in the Summer 2001 issue of FILM QUARTERLY (Volume 54, Number 4).

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/28/02)—Special for DVDWolf

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Click HERE to see more pix from Sony.

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