Film review: Firelight (1997)
Genre: romantic period drama (UK/USA)
Dear William Nicholson,
I was challenged to find and review a period romantic film that isn’t an adaptation. I was all for it until I discovered finding the task wasn’t as easy as I thought.
All I could find were the adaptations of works by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind), Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Barbara Cartland, Oscar Wilde, Frank Yerby (The Foxes of Harrow and The Golden Hawk), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), E.M. Forster (Maurice, A Room With a View), Anya Seton (Dragonwyck) and many others. I had hoped Captain Blood, The Horseman on the Roof and River Lady wouldn’t be adaptations, but they are. Damn you, Rafael Sabatini, Jean Giono and Frank Waters.
The originals I did find-‘such as The Abduction Club, Vidocq, Tugboat Princess, Lady Jane, and Brotherhood of the Wolf-‘can’t be easily found on DVD world-wide. O world, why art thou taking the mick?
I was about to fall on my knees in defeat when I remembered one of my role models Sandra Goldbacher (an awesome BBC history researcher and documentary maker) wrote and directed a film, The Governess (1998). I tried to get a copy from the dept when they suggested your film, Firelight, which was released that year and has a similar storyline. And it’s widely available on DVD. Yay! Let’s do a Snoopy dance, everyone!
The film opens in the year of 1838 with Swiss woman Elisabeth Laurier (Sophie Marceau) attending a formal interview with a middle-aged woman in an armchair and a mysterious gentleman who’s hiding behind a decorative screen. Both are there to ask Elisabeth questions, which slowly reveal the interview is conducted to assess Elisabeth as a potential baby maker.
Elisabeth is desperate enough to do this interview to help her debt-ridden father. The mysterious gentleman is a British aristocrat in need of an heir. And he’s a married man whose wife is ill. He has a valid reason to acquire an heir as soon as possible, but at this stage, we don’t know that reason.
The mysterious man tries to pretend he’s asking on the behalf of another gentleman, but Elisabeth’s strong will and determination force him to discard the pretence in order to answer her questions. With their names still withheld, Elisabeth and he agree they will have sexual intercourse at a hotel on the Normandy coast for three nights.
Their first encounter on the first night is soaked with stiff upper-lip civility. Elisabeth is relieved to discover this man is a reserved, quiet man with perfect manners and an anxiety not to distress her so much. The second night melts away the awkward invisible wall between them. The third night, sex becomes a lovemaking session, which surprises and secretly delights both. But alas, when the morning comes, they must part. Nine months later, Elisabeth gives birth to a newborn, which is immediately taken from her. But her father’s debts are finally cleared.
Six years later, Elisabeth is hired by Constance as a governess to Constance’s niece who lives with an English aristocratic in the Sussex countryside.
Upon her arrival, Elisabeth quickly discovers that the niece, Louisa (Dominique Belcourt), is an antagonistic spoiled brat who’s mistreated her previous governesses enough to make them quit in protest. She could see she’s in for a tough time when Louisa openly scorns her.
As Elisabeth quietly battles with Louisa’s difficult behaviour and getting know to Louisa’s home consisting Louisa’s clearly ill mother, Louisa’s aunt Constance who has the house under her control, and the house servants that view her as a grey area between them and the aristocratic family, she slowly settles in.
When Louisa’s father, Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane), returns from a long trip, it’s a shock for him and Elisabeth to see each other because Charles is no other than the mysterious man who spent three nights with her many years before. This means the difficult child Louisa is actually Elisabeth and Charles’s daughter.
Elisabeth is also disoriented to see Charles’s father, Lord Clare (Joss Ackland), openly mocking his son Charles’s embarrassing venture as a sheep farmer, even though it’s his irresponsibility that forces his dutiful son to take up the sheep-farming business to save their ancestral home from an all-too-real potential financial ruin. And that Charles’s American farmer friend, John Taylor (Kevin Anderson), is slowly falling in love with Elisabeth with all intentions of making her his wife.
Above of all, Elisabeth and Charles are discomforted by a realisation that the quiet bond between them, borne from those three nights many years before, is still very much alive.
It was tough to summarise Firelight as a spoiler-free synopsis because Firelight relies heavily on the breath-taking cinematography, subtle dialogue and the cast’s sometimes-understated solid performances. There are also many subtleties and nuances in these that are best left to be discovered by viewers at their own pace.
At this point, I should admit I have never liked having a governess as the heroine, in fiction and films. Two reasons: I deeply disliked Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and after working on a documentary series about Victorian-era governesses, the reality a typical governess had to face is all too real for me to hold the suspension of belief.
Many real-life governesses tended to have difficult and unhappy lives. They didn’t fit in with the servants because they were socially above their station, and they didn’t fit in with the family because they were below their station. This means they led lonely lives, which made their lives revolved around their wards. When wards grew up, these governesses were either discarded aside to fend for themselves-‘or left alone as spinsters living off tiny lifetime allowances made by their devoted adult wards. More than not, many governesses were mistreated by their "adopted’ families, and many governesses mistreated their wards without fearing the consequences because their employers left so much trust in their hands. We have heard the stories of abuse, humiliation, rape, criminal neglect and other heart-breaking experiences. It’s a strange and complex world where a governess can rule their wards with an iron fist and yet can be a victim of their employers’ sometimes painfully insensitive whims.
All this is the reason why I actively avoid stories that feature governesses. The reality isn’t pretty at all and I didn’t believe anyone could soften that reality. You’ve proven me wrong with Firelight. I believe it’s because you lightly acknowledged that reality-‘especially with the scenes of Elisabeth’s interactions with both the servants and the family as well her social isolation–without compromising the love story you wanted to realise.
I still can’t believe you’ve succeeded where no historical romance authors so far have succeeded. I’m not sure what to make of this, let alone acknowledging I may have been sexist for really believing that no man could make it work.
You did well with the casting, too. Sophie Marceau’s presence and looks have made Firelight one of best looking period dramas in years. Her acting ability is usually a hit-and-miss affair, but she did well with Firelight. She seemed real as Elisabeth and a woman of a time when life wasn’t easy. To be honest, I fell in love with her through Firelight. She looked so breath-taking. Is that shallow of me?
Stephen Dillane’s take as an angst-filled man, trapped by his strong sense of responsibility and duty, was solid as well. His character wasn’t easy-going or fun-loving. In fact he seemed a dull man, and he was. And yet whenever he was with Elisabeth, he–subtly but clearly–came alive. I must credit you and Dillane for this quiet but amazing performance. Although not traditionally handsome, he had the charm and presence; just enough to make my eyelashes flutter like crazy at him whenever I see him since the film.
I felt a lot for Godwin’s wife who seemed to suffer the worst of luck. I admit that with historical romance novels, I tend to feel sorry for heroes’ wives, usually because romance authors tend to demonise them to justify heroes falling in love with other women, namely the heroines. I always felt this was unfair and cowardly of authors to do this. But in this case, you didn’t demonise Mrs. Godwin, which made it somewhat easier for me to sympathise with Elisabeth and Charles’s dilemma.
Louisa, the product of Elisabeth and Charles’s three-night encounter, was truly a visitor from Hell. Much kudos to young actress Dominique Belcourt for making her character so unsympathetic and yet, a lonely and vulnerable child. Oh yes, many times I wanted to strangle her, but bit by bit, her performance won me over. I must stop writing further about the cast. In short, all these actors did well in Firelight. This must be because of your direction.
However, despite my enjoyment of Firelight, there is something that- I don’t know if it’s me, but more than once, I felt the story was hollow and to be honest, I don’t understand why. It had it all – the sublime cinematography, the solid performances, the rich side of storytelling, the almost fairy-tale feel, these quiet erotic moments, all these wonderful details of that bygone era and the best of all, the HEA.
And yet it still left me slightly cold. I just wasn’t that emotionally involved with the story.
Firelight pressed all the right buttons in me; I sympathized, I cheered, I awwed, I almost wept, and everything you might want from me, but although I still can recall the wonderful imagery of the film, I forget the story and its characters as soon as I shut down the DVD.
I’m thinking the reality of a typical governess’s life may have put a glass pane between me and your story, but I do recognize its strengths, which means I can push the original grade B to grade A-. I do think it deserves grade A- because considering other period dramas that aren’t adaptations, it’s unexpectedly elegant and romantic.
In short, it’s a must-see for romance readers enjoyed stories by Judith Ivory, Mary Balogh and similar historical romance authors.
Be good, be bad and be safe,
Firelight trailer: not available. However, if you want to see what the film is like, there is a fan-made video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeK3s7u1NNk Beware: it has a couple of major spoilers.