Produced or sponsored in the UK by the British Broadcasting Corporation, British Screen, the Arts Council of Britain, Pandora Cinema, and Parallax Pictures, The Governess is directed by first-timer (in features) Sandra Goldbacher, and the film's credits are for more women than men. No doubt about it, the gender gap is closing steadily. In countries like France it is a fait accompli; in the USA, it is felt more among Independents than in mainstream Hollywood. Good news.
Set in the early 1840s, the start of the Victorian era (1837-1901), the film revolves around Rosina Da Silva (Minnie Driver), one of the children of a wealthy Jewish family in London. What is immediately striking is that those Jews are members of the Sephardic Community in London, a large, lively group that, to my knowledge, has hardly been featured in British cinema, except indirectly and in the person of Benjamin Disraeli who was of Sepharad Italian-Jewish descent and became twice Prime Minister under Queen Victoria.
The Sephardim (from the Hebrew word Sefarad, meaning Spain) were originally Spanish or Portuguese Jews who were expelled from their countries in the late 1400s, moved to North Africa and other areas of the then Ottoman Empire (including the Balkans and Greece) on or near the Mediterranean, also to countries such as Italy, France, Holland, England. They mostly retained their Judeo-Spanish language (Ladino),and mostly, too, contributed hugely to the culture and life of their new homes. They formed the second-in-size diaspora, after the Ashkenazi , mostly Yiddish-speaking Jews, who lived in Central and Eastern Europe. (In the U.S.A the Ashkenazim have always been far more numerous than the Sephardim).
American movies show a wealth of Ashkenazi-descended characters, but hardly any Sephardim. For that matter, except, no doubt, in Israeli cinema, very few films anywhere have dealt principally with Sephardic Jews. Offhand, only two come to mind: Every Time we Say Goodbye (Israel, 1986), a charming WWII romance starring Tom Hanks; and Novia que te vea (Mexico, 1993) in Ladino literally "would that I could see you becoming a bride," directed by a Mexican woman, Guita Schyfter who is no doubt Ashkenazi.
In The Governess, there's a fascinating, long opening of a synagogue, its mass prayers and its socializing aftermath, reproduced, I would think, with minute and colorful precision, and introducing Rosina who has a will of her own and would like to be an actress. But soon after, her father dies and the family is left debt-ridden. Rosina, a girl with gumption, refuses the easy solution of marrying a rich and much older fishmonger (who smells of his product). At a time when women's options for employment were microscopic, just one venue is open to Rosina: to become a governess. So she scours newspaper announcements, finds a "wanted" ad, applies under the Gentile name of Mary Blackchurch, forges a false background for herself, and gets hired.
Her employers live on an island off Scotland. The exteriors were filmed on the Isle of Arran, which filmgoers could perhaps confuse with the Aran (one r), which is in Ireland, of Man of Aran, the superb 1934 documentary by Robert Flaherty. Still, both films happen to have this in common: survival, physical in Flaherty and social-psychological in the case of Rosina-Mary.
She enters a big house where the first sight is a wall festooned with trophies of stag-heads, a sight that chills as much as the lack of heating. Neither is made a point of, but we do feel both in the background. The lady of the house, Mrs. Cavendish, is bored to extinction, misses the bright lights and social life of London. Why she accepts this provincial exile is not spelled out. We might assume that it is because Mr. Charles Cavendish needs this isolation for his work. A cultivated man with insatiable curiosity, he is one of those lay, amateur scientists and inventors who devote their all to research and experiments and often come up with discoveries. His current passion is for photography.
Rosina slowly adapts, or pretends to, the somehow Gothic-Gentile milieu, in spite of ham being served, occasional prayers, and especially her charge, the bratty child Clementina. Rosina, who has guts, slowly tames the little shrew -- eventually some affection is born between them. She also impresses her employers with her culture, knowledge, foreign languages, even her singing of Schubert. We could have done without the latter. Above all, she proves to be also scientifically inclined, which leads to her assisting Mr. Cavendish.
The man's main problem is that while he can make photographs with his camera obscura, he cannot fix them, that is, find a way to keep the photos from fading. There is no known process for this yet. (But, to get technical, it seems to me that before 1840 , Talbot in England and Daguerre in France had achieved this with the use of "hypo," sodium hyposulphite. I won't quibble however)
Accidentally, as Rosina is secretly performing a Jewish prayer (note the symbolism), she stumbles on the answer to the problem. Until now, it was a given that Charles and Rosina would, for obvious reasons, fall in love. Her "invention" strengthens the bond, yet at the same time poses ego-problems with Charles, some stemming from scientific macho-pride (he later has a scientist visitor but he gives no credit to Rosina), some from a murky feeling that Rosina is overwhelming his life (later too he tells her "you consume me, I cannot be consumed").
In-between, the affair proceeds inevitably and predictably, except for details, which add color, especially as Rosina abandons her fake eyeglasses, becomes more sexily dressed, gets better-looking, daringly poses for photographs au naturel (including a Salome dance of the seven veils), even photographs Charles asleep and naked, the fullest monty -- a big step beyond The Full Monty movie where Tom Wilkinson (Charles here) played the foreman of the male strippers. Risque stuff indeed in a story that smacks of Bronte-Austen novels.
Predictably, when Henry, the Cavendish's son, is sent down from Oxford, the boy, at an age when the sap rises quickly, becomes passionate about Rosina. Predictably, Rosina quits her job, returns to London during a cholera epidemic. With an abrupt leap in time, we next find Rosina established as a commercial photographer and a recorder of Jewish life. Charles appears to have his portrait taken. "I'm in your hands" he tells her in a symbolic double-entendre. Then, at the end of the posing "Are we done?" She replies with another double-entendre "Yes, quite done." She becomes sought after. "They tell me I captured the beauty of my father's people." The end.
The Governess has some weak points, among them the nearly total predictability of the events. But then, lacking this, the film could not be what it is. On the other hand, there is too much purple prose in the lovers' dialogue. Also, several scenes are both slow and protracted, as if the movie's makers wanted to squeeze out every drop of every setup. This can be a become a bit dull especially since this is a work with few characters, all supporting except for the Charles-Mary couple. I say Mary rather than Rosina since we're positive that if he knew that she is a Jewess --a word frequently used here--he would never have had an affair with her.
More ambiguous (in her first starring role) is Minnie Driver's presence. She is no beauty, she does not exude sexuality, she is not captivating. Yet this serves the movie's feminist side subtly and well, since it tells us that you don't have to have radiant appeal to be attractive. This also goes with several scenes of love-making or sex which are quite realistically awkward or naive.
Overall The Governess score many a good point. I find both the start and the finish of the movie excellent, the former in its non-cliche nature and length, the latter in its brusqueness. One also ought to appreciate the metaphor, the notion that photography means possession which some want but others do not. Think of New World Indians and others who don't want their soul stolen by pictures. And fixing the image stands cleverly for the fixing of relationships, feelings and attitudes.
Without insistence, the movie sketches out a latent anti-Semitism that's familiar to the director: "at my primary school the only two other Jewish girls and I felt completely alien, and that was only 20 years ago." There is no attempt to spell out actions, reactions, states of mind, or to engage into anachronistic psychology. The cinematography and use of light are beautiful , with burnished colors, chiaroscuro, candle-light, diffraction of images seen through pieces of glass or in reflections, etc. The whole is without forced artiness, including the several occasions when Rosina has dreams or perhaps sees apparitions of her late, beloved father.
The movie won as Best Film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, today the paramount festival in what used to be the Soviet block.