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(1998) (Sophie Marceau, Stephen Dillane) (R)

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Drama: A woman takes a governess position with a wealthy man where for the first time she meets her child that she secretly bore for him many years earlier.
It's 1838 and Elisabeth Laurier (SOPHIE MARCEAU) is a twenty-two-year-old Swiss woman who has agreed to bear a child for Charles Godwin (STEPHEN DILLANE), the only son of Lord Clare (JOSS ACKLAND), a British aristocrat, in exchange for a substantial payment.

Elisabeth needs the money for her father's debts, while Charles, who's married to Amelia, his comatose wife, desperately wants an heir. In exchange for the payment, Elisabeth agrees to never speak of the arrangement or try to contact Charles and their child.

As the years pass and Elisabeth privately celebrates her unknown daughter's succession of birthdays, she learns that the Godwin staff is searching for a new governess to care for Charles' spoiled, seven-year-old daughter, Louisa (DOMINIQUE BELCOURT). Unbeknownst to Charles and despite their agreement, Elisabeth takes the position and moves into their expansive manor.

Despite learning from Charles' sister-in-law, Constance (LIA WILLIAMS), that she's the girl's fourth governess this year, Elisabeth is happy to see her child. Not surprisingly, Charles, who's now a master sheep breeder along with his American partner, John Taylor (KEVIN ANDERSON), isn't happy to see Elisabeth. Immediately dismissing her, Charles learns that he must allow her thirty days to find another position.

As the days pass and Elisabeth sets out to educate and discipline her unruly child in the short time she has, it's only a matter of time before she and Charles rekindle their earlier passion for one another. From that point on, they must figure out how to handle that while maintaining the secrecy of their earlier pact.

Unless they're into period romantic dramas, it's not very likely.
For sexuality and brief strong language.
  • SOPHIE MARCEAU plays a young woman who agrees to bear a child and then give it away to a wealthy man in exchange for money.
  • STEPHEN DILLANE plays the man -- with a comatose wife -- who agrees to pay a stranger to bear his child so that he may have an heir.
  • DOMINIQUE BELCOURT plays their spoiled brat of a daughter who has her way until her mother finally introduces discipline into her life.


    OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
    An exquisite and sumptuously staged "costume drama," this period-based film filled with contemporary matters will no doubt please fans of pictures such as "Howards End" and "A Room With A View." Lovingly handled, photographed, and featuring fine performances, the film's only drawback -- which may be major to some viewers -- is the predictable plot and slowly paced tempo.

    As written and directed by William Nicholson -- who makes his directing debut after crafting the Oscar nominated screenplay for "Shadowlands" as well as the scripts for "Nell" and "First Knight" -- the film perfectly fits into the mold of all those Merchant-Ivory productions (such as those listed above) while touching on more modern subjects such as surrogate mothering, euthanasia, and how to raise children.

    The film manages to avoid those made-for-TV trappings by not only having a period setting, but also by sporting a sumptuous look that's as mesmerizing as it is symbolic. The production design (courtesy of Rob Harris) is first rate, as is the cinematography (Nic Morris) and costuming (Andrea Galer). Despite the harsh winter environs that occupy the majority of the film's scenery (and which are symbolic of the boundaries that have frozen the lovers' passion), the film is gorgeous to behold visually.

    As is Sophie Marceau ("Braveheart," "Anna Karenina" and many French films) who inhabits the governess role with such ease and grace that it nearly seems written specifically for her. While the film's necessary rush through the intervening years since her daughter's birth somewhat shortchanges the necessary emotional elements, Marceau still manages to play the part perfectly.

    Stephen Dillane ("Welcome to Sarajevo," "Two If By Sea") brings a reserved dignity to his role -- from his awkward, but necessary early encounters with Elisabeth to dealing with his comatose wife. Although not an exciting character by any means, he does elicit sympathy from the audience and a collective desire for him to be happy by ending up with the woman destined for him.

    The supporting performances, while mostly brief, are also finely done. Young newcomer Dominique Belcourt does such a "good" job playing a spoiled brat that you'll find yourself wanting to help dish out whatever punitive methods are needed, while Lia Williams as the sister- in-law in waiting and Joss Ackland as the pompous father are also both quite good.

    While the film's contrasting symbolism may occasionally be a bit too obvious -- what with all of the talk about "firelight" and how everyone congregates around, and tends to, the yellow-bathed fires in the otherwise chilly, and drab mansion -- the film's near glacial pace may challenge all but the most hearty of art house fanatics.

    Despite the smoldering passion, the film suffers from too much of a gloom and doom aura that permeates the proceedings. Combined with the slow-moving plot that offers few surprises, and obstacles that are too easily overcome, the overall effect could be described as stodgy.

    The plot's overall remote setting prevents greater -- and more needed -- external conflict for the main characters from occurring. Cross-societal romances were considered inappropriate back then, and such an affair would raise more than eyebrows -- a device that's fueled romantic dramas since Romeo and Juliet dared break the rules in a different, but thematically similar fashion. While this plot does introduce the comatose wife and the sister-in-law in waiting (for Charles), those obstacles are too easily overcome to generate much suspense or drama.

    In addition, a little levity -- while understandably difficult to arrange in such a story -- would have been nice to soften the overall melancholy nature. As it is, this sort of film is perfect fodder for those who complain that costume dramas are -- for the most part -- uneventful and stuffy.

    Now, I wouldn't go that far in describing it, and despite those problems, this film is a mostly successful directorial debut by Nicholson. Perfectly capturing the proper look and feel of the time, and eliciting great, but mostly reserved performances from his cast, this film should bring him greater notice.

    Although perhaps just a bit too somber and slow for my personal liking, and lacking sufficient levels of necessary conflict to generate great drama, the film should still be well received by its target audience. With a little tweaking, the overall quality could have been raised a notch, but as it stands it's still a worthy picture. We give "Firelight" a 6.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick summary of this film's content. Several sexual encounters occur, most of which are more sensual than steamy, but they do show movement and some nudity. Some nonsexual nudity (male full frontal) also briefly occurs. Profanity is brief, but does include one use of the "f" word.

    The film is filled with contemporary subject matters, including the surrogate mothering relationship, euthanasia (a comatose character is allowed to freeze to death overnight) and how to properly raise children. Beyond that and some mild drinking, the remaining categories have little or no major objectionable material. Even so, you may want to take a closer look at the content should you or someone in your home wish to see this film.

  • People drink wine in a restaurant.
  • Charles drinks some sort of liquor, and has another while Elisabeth undresses, and another even later.
  • People drink at a party.
  • After learning that Elisabeth is Louisa's new governess, Charles says, "I believe Mr. Taylor needs a drink. I know I do."
  • Charles, Elisabeth, Connie and John have wine with dinner.
  • Charles and his father have drinks.
  • People have wine at a dance.
  • Charles' father has another drink.
  • None.
  • Some may see the initial child-bearing liaison as having some of both.
  • Charles and his father don't really like each and barely get along (Charles calls him a "monster").
  • Louisa is a spoiled child and is constantly rude and demanding to Elisabeth. She tells her that she hates her, doesn't have to do what she says, and in one scene, throws plates of food across the room where they shatter against the door.
  • Some may see Charles as having some of both for never disciplining Louisa.
  • Likewise, some may find Charles as having both for euthanizing his comatose wife by allowing her to freeze to death (after opening a window, extinguishing the fire, and pulling back her bedding).
  • A brief childbirth scene with heavy breathing and some screaming, but no blood and nothing else seen, may be unsettling to very sensitive or young viewers.
  • Elisabeth spots Louisa walking across a thin layer of ice toward her nearby "lake home." The girl falls through the ice and goes under the freezing water, and Elisabeth then dashes out and breaks through the ice trying to get to her (everything turns out okay).
  • While nothing about it is explicitly suspenseful, the scene in which Charles essentially euthanizes his wife (by allowing her to freeze to death after opening a window, extinguishing the fire, and pulling back her bedding), may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Diddling" (sexual) and "Bugger away."
  • Louisa tries to walk across a thin layer of ice to get to her nearby "lake home."
  • None.
  • A tiny bit of suspenseful music occurs during the film.
  • None.
  • At least 1 "f" word (that may be used sexually as is the term "diddling"), 5 damns, 3 uses of "bugger," and 1 use of "Oh God" as exclamations.
  • We see Elisabeth and Charles having sex several times in their initial "encounter" (but each instance is less than a minute long). The first slowly pans by a close-up of their bodies from the side while he's on top of her and we do see some restrained movement, but no nudity.
  • The second shows him on top of her (seen from above and showing just heads and shoulders, but we do see and hear her pleasured reactions (as well as a little bit of movement).
  • The third time we see several glimpses of her bare breasts (as he caresses one of them) and him "finishing" on top of her (with some movement and sounds), and they then have sex again (with some movement and sounds in another heads and shoulders shot from above).
  • We see a partial (and obscured) glimpse of male full frontal nudity as Elisabeth watches Charles briefly stand up after swimming nude in their lake (seen through partially opaque window panes).
  • We see Elisabeth and Charles having sex again (him on top of her on a bed), with views of some movement and her bare breasts (one of which he kisses the top of), along with hearing sexual sounds.
  • Charles' father asks Elisabeth, "Are you diddling Charles?" (having sex with).
  • None.
  • It's briefly mentioned that Elisabeth's mother died at childbirth.
  • Both Charles and Constance must deal with the comatose state of Amelia and her later death (which includes a funeral scene).
  • Louisa briefly confronts her mother about being given away at birth. Elisabeth then tells her that she sold her instead of giving her away, and Louisa seems fine with this once she learns she went for a high price.
  • The surrogate mothering arrangement the two come to (money in exchange for having sex and then bearing a child) -- Elisabeth tells Charles that since they're not doing this for themselves, maybe it's not that wrong.
  • Euthanasia. Charles eventually lets his comatose wife freeze to death overnight for two reasons -- the family is suddenly bankrupt, and her death will allow him to be with Elisabeth.
  • Charles briefly struggles with Elisabeth trying to get a key to a locked door from her.
  • Having a temper tantrum, Louisa throws plates of food across the room where they shatter against the door.
  • Charles euthanizes his comatose wife by allowing her to freeze to death (after opening a window, extinguishing the fire, and pulling back her bedding).

  • Reviewed August 20, 1998

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