Movie screens aren't exactly swarming with governesses this season, but they do seem more numerous than usual. First we had "The Governess," with Minnie Driver as the title character, who falls in love with her wealthy 19th-century employer and helps him invent photography. Now we have "Firelight," a slightly darker but no less romantic tale that's arriving in American theaters straight from the World Film Festival here in Montreal.
The heroine is a young Swiss woman who needs to settle her late father's debts. To obtain the necessary funds, she agrees to bear a child for a wealthy man whose wife is a helpless invalid, but finds herself unable to pass this off as what would now be called a "surrogate mother" arrangement. Years later she tracks her daughter down, accepting a job as the little girl's governess. She also sets about renewing her relationship with the aristocrat who originally set these events in motion.
What gives this story an appealing feminist overtone is the governess's determination not just to regain her daughter's affection but to give the little girl a genuine education, thus helping her avoid the sort of second-class status that she herself, like most women of the 19th century and many of our own, has been trapped in all her life.
Other assets of the movie include the firelit camera work by cinematographer Nic Morris, and earnest performances by Sophie Marceau as the heroine, Stephen Dillane as the aristocrat, and Dominique Belacourt as their daughter.
Although these ingredients weigh in the picture's favor, they're ultimately outbalanced by serious flaws in the screenplay. Many scenes are trite, stilted, or simply hard to believe. And Christopher Gunning's music drenches much of the action in melodies so corny that they detract from the emotions they're supposed to enhance.
The movie was written and directed by William Nicholson, who scripted Jodie Foster's drama "Nell" and earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his "Shadowlands" screenplay five years ago. He shows promise as a director, but he needs to show more trust in his own material and leave those weepy violins on the recording-room floor.
* Rated R; contains nudity and sex.