Minnie Driver gets a showy workout in “The Governess,” a beautifully crafted, if ultimately opaque, study of art, sensuality and outsider status in early Victorian England. The pic, which is set among the little-seen Sephardic community of London, gets high marks for originality and style, but Sony, which is sending the film out July 31, will have a tough time selling it to summer auds, who are likely to find its claustrophobic atmosphere more oppressive than seductive.
After some rather rushed scene-setting, story gets under way when privileged Rosina da Silva (Driver) finds her world shaken by the violent death of her beloved father, a wealthy Jewish merchant with a secret craving for the dangerous night life. With the family in debt, Rosy, who wants to be an actress, decides to pass herself off as a gentile — now called Mary Blackchurch — in order to find employment with a family in faraway Scotland.
What she finds at their bleak manor (exteriors were shot on the Isle of Arran) is one seriously dysfunctional unit, with a mother (Harriet Walter) slowly boring herself to death, a consumptive teenage son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) with the instant hots for the newcomer and a small daughter (“Fairy Tale’s” Florence Hoath) who makes Wednesday Addams look like great cheerleader material.
Although she’s initially creeped-out, Rosy/Mary’s rambunctious spirit soon starts infecting the Gothic household — especially where handsome father Charles (Tom Wilkinson) is concerned. A philologist and would-be inventor obsessed with the new “science” of photography, he soon enlists the nanny’s assistance. Soon, Mary is coming up with new solutions to various chemical problems he’s having, and she gets his hormones pumping as well. Those big, rambling country houses do have their uses, they discover, as she and Charles start having “artistic” sessions every afternoon, with a nary a servant nor family member to disturb them.
Naturally, these rigid Brits are plenty capable of ruining their own fun, and the illicit, cross-faith, intergenerational shenanigans eventually prove a bit too much for everyone, including the audience. Although first-time helmer Sandra Goldbacher, working from her own script, has come up with a fascinating premise, her follow-through is too scattered in concept and monotonous in execution to be truly rewarding.
The players, who do excellent work with what they’re given (especially Walter , who makes her thankless role amusing), are saddled with too much on-the-nose dialogue. It’s hard, after all, to accept that a 19th-century lass clever enough to say “We can be any self we want,” or “You’re in love with a dark idea,” would find herself in the predicament she’s handed here. In any case, her character’s reactions, as written, are so all-over-the-map, it’s easy to lose sight of who she is.
Goldbacher starts out focusing on the notion of otherness, but the central plot point — whether Rosina can, or should, ever be one of the gentiles — is eventually swallowed by a morass of class issues, gender polemics and Freudian sexuality (all territory more effectively covered in “Angels and Insects”). When the crunch comes, the heroine’s ethnicity doesn’t have much to do with it, anyway, so one is left wondering what the fuss was about.
And given the helmer’s propensity to turn every scene into a two-person confrontation — usually in dimly lit rooms — the tale’s inherent drama is worn down by constant low-level conflict. Unfortunately, the sex, including currently fashionable male nudity, plays the same way, with too many scenes staged and acted the same way.
Well lensed in widescreen by Ashley Rowe, pic has much to offer the senses, especially when aided by a score featuring singer Ofra Haza against percussive Eastern sounds. But the images are often art-directed to death, with more attention paid to fabrics, textures and colors (Rosy’s work outfits look like “Emma”-meets-Emma Peel) than to narrative coherence. A little trimming could remove some of the distractions and repetition, but it won’t be easy to hide the movie’s lack of a solid point or payoff.