11 February 2007 | skinnyjoeymerlino
A truly underrated gem, consider yourself lucky to find it
Fantasy book author William Nicholson made his first and so far only effort at movie-direction with this 1997 English Gothic romance based on his own screenplay. Sophie Marceau (the French princess in Braveheart) plays a Swiss governess named Elizabeth in late 1830s England. Desperate to pay a family debt, she sells herself to an anonymous English gentlemen for three days in his efforts to produce an heir for his family. Harsh and uncaring at first, they fall in love, but both have agreed never to see or speak to each other again for the sake of keeping up appearances. Elizabeth conceives a baby girl who is wisked away seconds after birth. Heartbroken, Elizabeth writes letters to "My English Daughter" until she can no longer keep her promise. Seven years after the baby's birth she tracks the child down; now a spoiled brat living on a remote Sussex estate. The daughter acts up as she pines for her usually absent father. Her father's wife has been in a vegetative state for a decade after a riding accident, and even the the daughter knows she is not the real mother. Elizabeth takes a job as the girl's governess to be close to her, unbeknownst to the girl's father. When the father, Charles Godwin, returns from London he is appalled at the mother of his child showing up again in his life as well as the rekindling of a romantic fire he has desperately tried to convince himself is long burnt out. Themes of duty to family, maternal love, and desperate attempts to hold back passion are played out in perpetually foggy and snowswept landscapes and around fireplaces in the Godwin Victorian mansion.
Performances by the actors are uniformly excellent. Marceau and Stephen Dillane as Charles Godwin share a chemistry rarely captured on film; but also look for Dominique Belcourt as the daughter; Lia Williams as Godwin's long-suffering sister-in-law; Kevin Anderson as the visiting American who falls for Elizabeth; and veteran British actor Joss Ackland as Godwin's father whose self-indulgent hedonism dooms the family to ruin. It's never apparent that this is Nicholson's first time out as a director. Nic Morris's cinematography of the English countryside and Marceu's exquisitely beautiful face lit by firelight is something to see, and Christopher Gunning's string-laden score is dramatic and over-the-top which it really should be.
Although rife with gray and icy colors, painful family obligation, stark settings, heartbreak, euthanasia, held back emotions, and rigid social mores; the underlying theme of the Firelight is that true love conquers all. It's never really gotten the attention it deserves.
Released by Disney's Hollywood pictures, the movie played briefly in American arthouses back in 1998 and was released on VHS the next year to very little fanfare. Disillusioned, Nicholson never directed a picture again, although he hit paydirt when he co-wrote the script to Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000. Firelight has been sporadically available since then on demand on the Encore movie cable channel. A Region 0 bare-bones DVD was released in Hong Kong of all places; it's available on Amazon.com and ebay. If you find a copy, it's definitely worth purchasing.