The 1998 movie called “The Governess” is a pastiche of different tropes with a mix of motives. For those who simply let things in movies go by, pulled along by a narrative thread, it is about a young woman in a London ghetto whose beloved father dies suddenly, leaving the family so bereft of funds that the only way of recovering is marrying off the elder daughter to a rich fishmonger. Rebelling, she works as a governess in a remote castle where she falls in love with the “lord and master,” learns the not-quite-invented art of photography, is betrayed, and returns home to support the family with her camera studio. Simple enough to hang lots of ideas on it.
First, this young woman is pointedly Jewish, raised in an opulent bubble, ambivalent about the “outside world.” The opening of the movie is powerfully moving, a magnificent rendering of Jewish worship which leads us to expect something quite different. But it cuts away to giggling girls and then to taunts from Christian street whores. Confusing, but evidently the contents of the jumbled minds of sisters at bedtime. We have no explanations of the political context. Maybe this sequence from majesty to silliness to defiant revulsion is meant to be it. Written and directed by Sandra Goldbacher, this is her first full-length movie. Her primary venues have been art films and advertising, which shows in the emphasis on surface.
The tropes here are 19th century conventional compartmented society, invaded by modern feminism. The three producers are all women, but the excellent cinematography is by Ashley Rowe, a man with a fairly hefty resume that includes “Copying Beethoven” (which explores similar tropes about 19th century girls who must work for a living) and “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (the trope of the aging woman and ambitious sexy young man, a reversal of the previous pattern).
If one were including “The Governess” in a course about tropes in film, other candidates might be “Copying Beethoven,” with “Jane Eyre” as the original matrix. Probably the most powerful version is A.S. Byatt’s “Angels and Insects.” (1995) directed by Philip Haas. The screenplay is credited to “Belinda Haas.” Haas’ first credit as director of a film was “A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China or: Surface Is Illusion But So Is Depth” (1988). a documentary written by David Hockney. I’d love to see it. Sounds like a good clue.
In “The Governess” the persuasion is that knowledge is not gender-assigned and that an intelligent woman is a turn-on. I can only hope both are true. This sort of movie comes out of a groundswell of feminism among the documentary arts crowd rather than Hollywood and is either an Indie phenomenon or influenced by that context. I don’t know enough to judge.
The formal criticism of this film when released was that a) it is self-indulgent and b) it promises more than it can deliver. The end sort of dwindles off as though it were too revolutionary to envision. I think both observations are true. Also, ironically, I think that politics -- feminist rather than religious and sociological -- tempts the writer into falling in love with reversals. The powerless and therefore virtuous little governess of “Jane Eyre” becomes the wily and potentially destructive outsider who does not hesitate to take revenge and then is able to make an escape to success. A cousin is “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” 1981, in which two centuries are played off against each other and two master actors deftly play aspects of themselves.
In such endeavors, casting is crucial. Minnie Driver cannot quite come up to Tom Wilkinson, an actor of such depth and integrity that by the time of his betrayal in a sprawling naked portrait, first meant as a token of love and later used as a means of revenge, our sympathy has largely gone to him in spite of the Jewess returning to pathetic scenes in her old home. The governess’ career as a recorder of the Jewish people in London seems only a footnote. Maybe she is too much wide-eyed ingenue. Maybe the dream sequences don’t quite bite hard enough on how much she loves her father and expects his understanding and eternal protection. (Why didn’t HE make some provision for his death, which everyone knew was possible? Why is that brother so useless?) Maybe the force and significance of being a co-experimenter is made trivial. Certainly Wilkinson’s character's re-appearance at the end to voluntarily have his photo taken seems tacked on and inexplicable. Wicked lovers always hope they’re loved in spite of betrayal.
The flesh-colored ivory depiction of Christ on the Cross the governess throws onto her bed is almost echoed later in the nude pose. Is it an allusion to the seductiveness (and ultimate crucifixion) of the Other? Would she have found the same predation with a Jewish man? A few scenes appear left over from old BBC productions or maybe “The Piano.” (Will the beach ever look the same after “The Piano?”) Can such a sensualist as Minnie’s character be safely left to guide a little girl and what does the puppet show mean about what she knows? Stripping the feckless boy at the end and his bit of agonized writhing on the beach is similarly unresolved. The boy’s fantasy is a necessary plot device since it motivates Wilkinson’s sudden abandonment of the imagined escape to a better life in a better place. (Paris. What did you think? California?) But simple intergenerational jealousy is too simple an explanation for the end of this governess’ fantasies of marrying an older, rich, accomplished man. She DOES overstep her bounds. She’s too much for this conventional reclusive family man.
All along I've been interested in the 19th century fascination with the beginnings of natural history, its technical exploration and finally its impact on society. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” echoes through here and not just through the camera obscura. We are interested to find out how others see us, but more than that, struck by how we see ourselves, especially in moral terms. It’s not just a matter of posturing in the mirror, which it sometimes seems that the governess is doing, but a question of what is currently being called reflexivity, calling into question what we are doing and -- hopefully -- searching for new ways. Now that we are confronting ourselves from outer space (Google earth) from citizen pockets (iPhones) from multiple ethnicity and the wars rooted in them (soldier vids) and a multitude of other visions, how should they change the way we live? Who is the governess now?