'Firelight' is unchained melodrama

September 26, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Windswept moors, billowing capes and waves breaking on the shore are just a few of the visual cues that tell audiences what they're in for in "Firelight," a fluffy, Gothically romantic period drama starring the lovely Sophie Marceau and sexy Stephen Dillane.

William Nicholson's film has everything an unreconstructed romance-addict could ask for: two very attractive lead players, a suitably fantastical setup, evocative locations and, of all things, a happy ending. Filmgoers may well roll their eyes at such loopy dialogue as "I never knew there was so much power in desire," but they have to hand it to "Firelight" for being so unapologetically what it is: highbrow pulp that combines soft-core sexual imagery and excruciatingly good taste in a delicious melange of retrograde romance.

Marceau plays Elisabeth, a Swiss girl who, down on her luck, enters a curious agreement with Charles (Dillane), basically agreeing to be a surrogate mother for his only heir. After spending three nights together, she fulfills her part of the bargain by conceiving, but a daughter isn't the only issue of the liaison. Because during their encounters, Elisabeth and Charles, as Elisabeth would no doubt put it, fell a leetle beet een love.

Seven years later -- quel surprise! -- Elisabeth takes a job as a governess at Charles' sheep farm, where she discovers her daughter (spoiled brat), Charles' wife (in a coma upstairs) and her still-strong affection for the master of the manse.

Will the infuriated Charles -- so cute when he's mad -- kick Elisabeth out of the house? Will his American business partner (Kevin Anderson) succeed in winning her hand? Will her daughter ever learn the alphabet? Writer-director Nicholson spares no florid, goosebump-inducing flourish in drawing Elisabeth's scrumptiously tortured tale of longing to its quite satisfying conclusion.

Filmed with attractive, "Masterpiece Theater"-worthy production values, "Firelight" may try the patience of filmgoers who prefer some genuine tension, nuance and surprise with their love stories, but for someone looking for an undemanding but not insulting piece of junk culture -- the cinematic equivalent of an absorbing airplane novel -- this is just the thing.

"Firelight" is such a complete throwback to Gothic melodrama, so unrepentant in its genteel bodice-heaving, that it's difficult to have anything but a bemused admiration for it. And Nicholson is to be commended for not capitulating to the current fashion for tragic endings.

Marceau -- whose bosom seems to have been constructed by a Ph.D. in aerodynamics -- has never been more beautiful, and Dillane, last seen as an intrepid journalist in "Welcome to Sarajevo," is a sexy, soulful incarnation of the Rochester-Heathcliff persona. And Annabel Giles, as Charles' catatonic wife, will surely take the honors this year for most robust performance by an actress in a persistent vegetative state.

'Firelight'

Starring Sophie Marceau, Stephen Dillane

Directed by William Nicholson

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated R (sexuality, language)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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