Passionate period drama has depth and intelligence the classics lack
Minnie Driver may have been Oscar-nominated for her role as The Girl in "Good Will Hunting," but in "The Governess" her supernatural talent for becoming wholly enveloped in a character blossoms beautifully.
In her role as a young Jew posing as a gentile in order to find work in 19th Century London, Driver is handed a multi-faceted character that would likely sink most other actresses her age.
Rosina Da Silva is a brilliant and impassioned eldest of two sisters, with a mind for science and lively debate that in this conservative age goes largely ignored because of her sex. But while she is capable of challenging the intellect of her elders, she is also curious, giddy, girlish and rather carefree until the murder of her deeply indebted father.
Tapped to save the family through marriage for money, Rosina (Driver) refuses and instead takes a well-paying position as a nanny to a Christian family on the Isle of Skye, hiding her religion by assuming the name Mary Blackchurch (she has quite an ironic sense of humor) and boning up on gentile etiquette.
Directed by Sandra Goldbacher, a BBC documentarian who adapted the script from a fictitious diary she's written from Rosina's point of view, "The Governess" is the most complex and intelligent story to come out of the recent resurgence in period drama film.
Even though she has her hands full with Clementina, her young charge whom she describes as "a rodent in lace petticoats," Rosina is often bored in her duties with the idly rich Cavendish family and begins poking around the off-limits laboratory where Mr. Cavendish (Tom Wilkinson) experiments with early photographic techniques.
When her sleuthing is discovered, her interest piques Cavendish, who recruits her as assistant. Rosina brings an enthusiastic, artistic eye to his research and before long he becomes enraptured with her, leading to a torrid, clandestine affair.
This is no prim and proper Jane Austen story. As much as I adore the joyous melodrama and romance of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma," this film has depth of emotion and a moral complexity that Austen is unlikely to have ever known, and if she did, she certainly would never have been so gauche as to write about it.
What's more "The Governess" conveys the Victorian era so effectively that even to us a glimpse of ankle becomes a libidinous sensation. So when the affair begins, the implications of such wanton acts are emblazoned on the audience.
Wilkinson, a consummate chameleon of an actor, is so vital and fervent in the way his animal desire percolates just underneath a gentlemanly facade that he is completely unrecognizable from his role as the eldest and most reluctant amateur strippers in "The Full Monty" (not to mention the vicious father of Lord Douglas he played in "Wilde"). Here he looks to be a youthful 45 years old and overcome by a long-dormant, barely contained rapture.
With the truth of her identity hanging over many scenes, Driver plays Rosina with a stirring mix of virtue, inexperienced lust, trepidation and, ultimately, a vulnerability that puts her heart at the mercy of Cavendish's ego.
Goldbacher paints Rosina's life with a rich visual palate, from warm, golden hues in her comfortable familial home to icy, oceanic blues on the Isle of Skye and in the Cavendish mansion. Poetically cinematic, the film plays on the script's photography bent by equating Rosina's vision of her love affair to Cavendish's drive to discover a permanent method of fixing a photographic image on paper. The scientific becomes romantic in a most tantalizing way.
Dispite its few faults -- Rosina's struggle to adapt to rigid gentile manners is hardly addressed at all -- "The Governess" is one of those picture so dynamic it makes your feel like running out of the theater with a fresh exuberance for life, as if you haven't appreciated it enough recently. It's completely engrossing to the heart, the mind and the eye.