Too big a bodice to fill Review: 'The Governess' has a superb Minnie Driver, pleasant surprises and superficial beauty. But the romantic film's story has been done before and better.

August 21, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Governess" is a very pretty movie. And Minnie Driver is very good in it. Set in 19th-century Britain, it has a fascinating subtext involving the invention of photography.

But with all this going for it, "The Governess" is still nothing more than a stilted costume drama, a classy bodice-heaver listing under the weight of its good taste and even better intentions. Part "Jane Eyre," part "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "The Governess" isn't dramatic or original enough to live up to those progenitors or to be of compelling interest.

Driver plays Rosina Da Silva, a lively daughter of Sephardic Jewish parents whose lives of comfort and earthy celebrations are brought up short when Rosina's father dies and leaves them penniless.

To support her family, Rosina takes on work as a governess, disguising herself as a Christian, re-naming herself Mary Blackchurch in order to fit in with her prim Scottish employers, who live on a remote island. Rosina/Mary learns to make peace with this alien, colorless existence and even manages to find a mutual passion for photography with the family's patriarch.

Fans of "The Full Monty" will be shocked to see Tom Wilkinson -- who played the oldest member of the troupe in that comedy -- as the gloweringly seductive Mr. Cavendish, whose interest in inventing a photographic fixative soon turns into a graphic fixation on Rosina. (Some sample lines: "Your eyes are so huge You devour me." "I will let you suck the marrow from my bones ")

Indeed, the utterly transformed Wilkinson, as well as the sensuous jewel tones of Isabel Lorente's production design and Caroline Harris' costumes, are probably the best things about "The Governess," whose story never deepens enough to absorb viewers.

Driver makes a spirited and animated Rosina. Her life-force infects everyone in the Cavendish household except the sickly mother (played with simpering perfection by Harriet Walter). But even as lively and appealing an actress as Driver can't make "The Governess" do anything more than sit up and take light nourishment.

'The Governess'

Starring Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Directed by Sandra Goldbacher

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R (sexuality and nudity)

Running time: 114 minutes

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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