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GOVERNESS, THE(director/writer: Sandra Goldbacher; cinematographer: Ashley Rowe; editor: Isabel Lorente; cast: Minnie Driver (Rosina), Tom Wilkinson (Cavendish), Florence Hoath (Clementina), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Henry), Harriet Walter (Mrs. Cavendish); Runtime: 114; Arts Council of England / BBC / British Screen / Pandora Cinema / Parallax Pictures / Sony Pictures Classics; 1998-GB)
“A heavy going but at times embroiling drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A heavy going but at times embroiling drama. Minnie Driver plays a Jewess in 1800s London whose father is murdered, which leaves the family impoverished. She refuses to marry a rich man chosen by her mother, instead she seeks employment and takes a job on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, in order to support her family in the style they are accustomed to. She hides her Jewish identity because a Christian is requested by the household. Religion acts as an inhibiting and possessive experience throughout the film, as the first-time director Sandra Goldbacher weaves a tale of alienation and sexual liberation in a puritanical type of setting.

The film opens powerfully with some spectacular visuals, as the Jewish ritual in the temple is shot in chiarasco. It is easy to realize how difficult it is to break from one’s religious traditions if you are raised and indoctrinated with it. Minnie has left her Jewish world for a hostile gentile world she cannot fathom. The starkness and loneliness of this rural area leaves her in a deracinated state. She subsequently finds romance with the master of the house, the intellectually gifted Wilkinson (who is searching for a method to make the photographic image permanent). He is a bit of a prude and a bigot, though not as much as is his bored wife (Walter), who idly chatters about escaping from her lonely world for one of culture. In this perplexing type of atmosphere, Minnie is struggling to find out who she is; but, she’s constantly put off by the isolation of the foreign Protestant countryside and the restrictive family she resides with.

The flaws in the film are that the direction is at times unfocused, as too many scenes are awkwardly shot. The 19th century life-style of the Protestant family is too complicated to gloss over as superficially as the film does.

What also hinders the film, is that the love affair was not credible considering the lack of passion (these lovers were just not a believable match). Also, the film hammers out too many far-reaching religious themes that it cannot properly address.

But the acting and cinematography are superb. Everyone performs with stagelike perfection. Minnie was alluring. It makes sense that her romance does not work, that her lies are uncovered, and that she returns to her Jewish roots vulnerable and ready to find herself again. I, especially, was intrigued by her botanical walk scenes with the repugnant young girl she tutors (Florence), as she forms a genuinely warm relationship with her despite the child’s obvious unpleasantness. Her sexually explicit scenes, though not passionate, added to the religious tremors of the film and the sense of her alienation. But the story just seemed to die of exhaustion and the transformation of Minnie back to her roots, was a foregone conclusion from very early in the film.

The Governess is an absorbing but not necessarily an entertaining film, or one that is entirely credible.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”