"Firelight" isn't likely to give off much of a glow except to devourers of Harlequin-type period romances. For them, however, it delivers the goods in much tidier fashion than the potentially much better but seriously flawed "The Governess," which also opened this summer. For the rest of us, though, it's pretty heavy going. (When it comes to recent governess/poor relation movies, Jessica Lange's "Cousin Bette" is the best of the lot.)
A governess, explains Sophie Marceau's Elisabeth, is the only respectable position open to women without means in the early 19th century. Times have obviously changed drastically for most women in Europe and America but no doubt there are still plenty of women who can identify with a governess whose only hope for escape from a grim existence is for some dashing knight to rescue her from poverty and loneliness and sweep her up into a life of romance, luxury and high social position.
British writer-director William Nicholson, who has spoken of his admiration for '40s screen romances, tries to recall them yet brings to the genre a contemporary candor that is sometimes jarring--too real for what is essentially contrived hokum. His Elisabeth, who is Swiss, is a damsel in such distress that she agrees to sire a child for Stephen Dillane's Charles, an English aristocrat whose beloved wife has for two years remain paralyzed and comatose (but with her eyes wide open) from a riding accident. (It seems that Elisabeth means to spring her father from prison, presumably for debt, with Charles' payment of 5,000 pounds.)
Elisabeth and Charles agree to meet in Normandy and spend three nights together to try to make sure that Elisabeth becomes pregnant. By the third night, Charles, who has remained celibate, and Elisabeth, who most probably is a virgin, are enjoying themselves but stick to the agreement, which means that their child is to be deposited on the steps of an inn near Charles' vast Sussex estate. Alas, mother love sweeps over Elisabeth, who spends the next seven years tracking down Charles, whose name she never knew. The next thing he knows Elisabeth has been hired by his sister-in-law Constance (Lia Williams) as the newest governess for their spoiled-rotten daughter Louisa (Dominique Belcourt).
Of course, he's outraged; of course, she's a miracle worker with the incorrigible child; of course, they can't keep their hands off each other.
Now all this wealth of incident--there's much more, to be sure--is treated by Nicholson with the utmost solemnity, so much so that when Charles' pleasure-loving father (Joss Ackland) visits, we're made to notice how stiff and glum "Firelight" really is. (Not helping is that Marceau is herself not exactly an animated actress; Dillane, however, is as good as circumstances permit.)
For someone who takes his material so very seriously, Nicholson is careless with details. How did Elisabeth and Charles come into contact with each other in the first place? Personal ads seem unlikely. How did Charles make sure that he'd be the one to pick up the seemingly abandoned baby? Since we're decades away from intravenous feeding, how has Charles' absolutely rigid wife managed to survive 10 long years? If Constance, who not surprisingly is secretly in love with Charles herself, yields gracefully to Elisabeth and departs, where and how will she live? The more "Firelight" sputters the less you care about the answers.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality and brief strong language. Times guidelines: It also includes brief male frontal nudity.
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Sophie Marceau: Elisabeth
Stephen Dillane: Charles
Kevin Anderson: John Taylor
Lia Williams: Constance
Joss Ackland: Lord Clare
Dominique Belcourt: Louisa
A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Wind Dancer Films/Carnival Films co-production. Writer-director William Nicholson. Producer Brian Eastman. Executive producers Carmen Finestra, David McFadzean, Matt Williams, Susan Cartsonis,, Rick Leed. Cinematographer Nic Morris. Editor Chris Wimble. Costumes Andrea Galer. Music Christopher Gunning. Production designer Rob Harris. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330.