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IN SHORT: Among the higher echelons of arthouse/indie fare. Cranky liked this one.
Serious filmmaking time, folk. I know it's serious 'cuz the li'l old filmmaker inside me has been screaming at the back of my brain what changes he'd have made to this pretty fine English flick. The Governess is not a popcorn flick. It's more along the lines of a Masterpiece Theater story, but not as epic. The story is substantial. The visuals are beautiful. The casting is, for the most part, first rate.
Two things that work, and set The Governess far above most writer/director pieces that Cranky has suffered through in the past: The performances by Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson are superb. The script, by director Sandra Goldbacher, does not rub your nose in the plot points. Then again, that last bit may be why this movie may be a bit too subtle for some folks out there. I'll get to that a couple of 'graphs down
Set in the mid 19th Century, The Governess is the story of Rosina Da Silva (Driver) a London based Jewish woman who finds herself forced to support her debt laden family when her father is murdered. As you can probably guess, women in this time period didn't have a lot of choices other than marriage or prostitution, both of which are addressed briefly in the script. Rosina comes up with an alternative, which is to take advantage of her half- Italian genetics and pass herself off as a Christian governess at an estate about as far from London as she could get.
The job is on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. The student is a death- obsessed, spoiled 9-year-old named Clementina (Florence Hoath). Her father, Mr. Cavendish (Wilkinson), is locked in a laboratory all day, doing experiments (as a lot of rich men in the 19th century did) seeking a way to "fix" photographic images on paper. His wife (Harriet Walter) is terminally bored, which leaves him emotionally frustrated. Da Silva, now called Mary Blackchurch, has had but one kiss and is at the marital age where passion is on the mind. An interest in the Lord's chemical experiments leads to a reaction of a different sort. The proverbial wicket gets all the more sticky when elder son Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is booted out of Oxford, returns home to fall madly infatuated with the hot, young teacher, and uncovers her secret identity.
I had no idea if Minnie Driver was a fellow Member of the Tribe, (as it turns out, she's not) but she got the movements and morals of the urban orthodox Jewish world nailed. Goldbacher's script does a visual dance around how "Mary" struggles to maintain her religious identity in the midst of Gentiles -- the point is made well that each group regards the other as "monsters" -- and how her violation of some of the religious and moral laws lead to an affirmation of her true identity. Cranky caught all the little bits 'cuz he's MOT, but if you're not, all is fairly clear.
Wilkinson, last seen in The Full Monty, falls apart quite nicely as his proper English gentleman is inflamed by passions long suppressed. When the affair blows up in his face, and the sexism of the day reasserts itself, there's another tragedy awaiting the restored Ms. Da Silva back in London. The Governess provides more story than most writer/director art films do. The visual style -- lots of shots through period glass, comes close to overkill early on, but then Goldbacher gets on with the story and that is strong enough to carry you through. Whether or not the distinctly 90s twist at the ending works for you is up to you.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Governess, he would have paid...
Serious films like this don't fit up against the Cranky scale well. If The Governess had been released in the midst of the Oscar-wannabe race (come October-December) I suspect it may have sunk. Of the films I've seen this year which will make the run of the art house circuits, this is among the top level.
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