105 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 4, 1998
Written & directed by William Nicholson

Starring Sophie Marceau, Stephen Dillane, Dominique Belcourt, Kevin Anderson, Lia Williams & Joss Ackland


This story and the film's style lend themselves to the small screen. I expect it will seem better on video than it did in the theater.

Heartfelt period drama strongly acted, but story is obvious and pedestrian

Period dramas come with a built-in air of integrity. There is something about going back 100 years or more that lends a film an assumed quality. So when a period drama falls short, it's a frustrating experience.

"Firelight" does just that. Well acted, emotionally sincere and quite detailed in atmosphere, I wanted to like it, but it was nonetheless disappointingly hollow on the whole, despite the great effort that clearly went into the picture from everyone involved.

Writer-director William Nicholson's vision of Victorian England is vivid through cold, blue and snowy settings and the contrasting golden firelight which symbolizes the secrets and desires of his heroine, a young Swiss beauty (Sophie Marceau) who becomes a surrogate mother to pay off family debts.

Marceau ("Braveheart," "Anna Karenina") draws the audience in with her sad, pretty face and her capacity for expressing intrinsic thought and immoderate pain and joy.

But the story is obvious and pedestrian once it has wound its way through the her complex and unexpected desires stirred by her liaisons with the ever-brooding father-to-be (Stephen Dillane, "Welcome to Sarajevo"), who will take her child when it is born.

The majority of the film takes place seven years after Marceau gives birth, as she searches for and finds her daughter -- an undisciplined brat doted on by her wealthy father -- then arranges to become the girl's governess, much to the surprise of Dillane.

The strong feelings she and Dillane developed during their intended- to- be- mechanical tryst come rushing back (which is a given) and once it is revealed that his wife is a near-comatose invalid, the rest of the movie is wholly predictable. Marceau will bond with the child through love and discipline, becoming the only governess who could ever control her, and with the wife on death's doorstep -- well, you do the math.

Despite its transparent development and its shameless jockeying for tears, "Firelight" is a fairly noble effort. Marceau's emotional yet dignified, and even witty, performance isn't enough to overcome the simplicity, but it is moving, most notably in the early scenes as she forces herself though overwhelming reluctance into sexual encounters with this stranger.

Neither of them make much effort to enjoy it at first as both busy themselves justifying their motives, but Marceau and Dillane play the gradual influx of passion beautifully.

The secondary characters, however, are given little more than dime store depth. The spoiled daughter (Dominique Belcourt) spends sullen hours in her estate's boat house pining for a mother. The wife's plain and prim sister dreams of marrying Dillane once her sickly sibling passes away -- and fails to recognize the inevitable after Marceau shows up. Inevitably there is another man (Kevin Anderson) who desires to marry Marceau.

Although Nicholson (the writer of "Shadowlands," "Sarafina" and "Nell") unmistakably poured his heart into this movie -- and his efforts do pay off from time to time -- in the end "Firelight" is little more than a glorified Lifetime Channel movie, lent prestige by the period setting and the casting of Marceau.

It also has the unfortunate timing to come out only a month after "The Governess," also the story of an affair between a child's caregiver and her employer, and one of the best movies of the year.

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