A keenly thesped costumer made resonant by contemporary concerns including surrogate motherhood, strict vs. permissive parenting and the moral speedbumps of euthanasia, "Firelight" is artistically and emotionally assured.

A keenly thesped costumer made resonant by contemporary concerns including surrogate motherhood, strict vs. permissive parenting and the moral speedbumps of euthanasia, “Firelight” is artistically and emotionally assured. “Shadowlands” creator and “Nell” scripter William Nicholson follows a distinguished docu career at the BBC and a solid track record in penning TV dramas with this deceptively reserved but affecting widescreen debut that could also serve as Sophie Marceau’s breakthrough role in English when Miramax releases Stateside in the spring. Little seems likely to stand in the way of international arthouse success for this beautifully lit maternal odyssey with a twist.

Pic’s brainy-yet-romantic tone and level of craft will please fans of recent outings “Mrs. Brown” and “Angels and Insects.” And while the surroundings are too arid to set folks dreaming the way “The English Patient” did, “Firelight” taps into a comparable well of fearlessly patient romantic devotion, without ever throwing duty to the winds.

In 1838, lovely Swiss governess Elisabeth (Marceau) enters into a mercenary pact with an anonymous English landowner (Stephen Dillane): She will conceive and bear his child in exchange for a sum sufficient to pay her father’s debts. The purely pragmatic arrangement develops wrinkles almost immediately: Although they are terse, stiff and formal in their pre- and post-coupling interactions, the pair’s bedroom moves belie an attraction deeper than a mere mission to reproduce. As agreed, Elisabeth gives up the child, a girl, at birth but keeps a journal, replete with lovely watercolor illustrations, in which she pines for the daughter she will never know.

Seven years later, Elisabeth is hired as governess to a headstrong girl on a remote Sussex estate. The man of the house is Charles Godwin, and the child is her own. Due to wrenching circumstances that are soon made clear, Godwin’s unconventional deal with Elisabeth was a compromise to produce an heir. To compound Charles’ problems, his father, Lord Clare (Joss Ackland), is a profligate spendthrift who runs up debts with all the joie de vivre businesslike Charles seems to lack.

Appalled by the moral implications of Elisabeth’s sudden presence in his house, Charles swears her to secrecy about her blood tie to 7-year-old Louisa (well-cast newcomer Dominique Belcourt), a spoiled and snobbish whippersnapper who’s gone through governesses like paper plates. Elisabeth agrees to the achingly awkward arrangement and sets about the seemingly insurmountable task of taming her own child without betraying the source of her devotion. The pent-up feelings Charles and Elisabeth feel for each other but musn’t express add to the tragic, electric atmosphere.

Cast is terrific across the board, breathing life into succinct, often exquisite dialogue, in a stiffling but delicious context. Marceau plays down her impish side in favor of stern, class-conscious control and barely contained sensuality. Ackland and Dillane are outstanding as a father and son from radically different molds. Kevin Anderson makes a brief but potent contribution as a visiting American sheep farmer.

Spare but evocative production design perfectly complements scenes written and played out with beauty and economy. Christopher Gunning’s score is subtly dramatic.

Firelight

U.S.-British

Production

A Miramax release (in U.S.)/Capitol Films (in France) release of a Wind Dancer/Carnival Films production for Hollywood Pictures. (International sales: Village Intermedia Pictures, London) Produced by Brian Eastman. Co-executive producers, Matt Williams, David McFadzean, Carmen Finestra, Rick Leed, Susan Cartsonis. Directed, written by William Nicholson.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Nic Morris; editor, Chris Wimble; music, Christopher Gunning; production design, Rob Harris; costume design, Andrea Galer; sound (Dolby), Sandy Macrae; choreographer, Jane Gibson; associate producer, Ted Morley; assistant director, Edward Brett; casting, John and Ros Hubbard. Reviewed at Deauville Festival of American Cinema (noncompeting), Sept. 14, 1997. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival --- competing.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Elisabeth - Sophie Marceau
Charles Godwin - Stephen Dillane
John Taylor - Kevin Anderson
Lord Clare - Joss Ackland
Constance - Lia Williams
Louisa - Dominique Belcourt
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