Stars: Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane
Tucked away and steaming on Amazon is a period movie lost in the crowd – Firelight – filmed in 1997. It was written and directed by William Nicholson. Who is he, you ask? He is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who co-authored Gladiator, wrote Shadowlands, Nell, First Knight, and many others. The story is extremely different for a period film, yet Bronte-type familiar in its plot.
It begins with a single woman from Switzerland, named Elizabeth, in an interview with an elderly lady and an unidentified man in a chair who she cannot see. The position is unlike any job a woman would take in 1838 England. She agrees to father the stranger a child for the sum of 500 pounds and walk away giving him the baby and promising never to see him or the child again. Her motive for agreeing to do such an immoral act is only explained by one sentence – her father needs the money.
When she finally meets her employer in a discreet location by the ocean, they have sex for three nights in a row. (Prepare yourself for moaning and full breast scenes.) She knows nothing about him – his name, where he lives, and why he is seeking a child in an immoral tryst when he is married. At first, it is a cold and detached union with one purpose – to impregnate her. However, by the third time, the two see each other as individuals and form a fragile attachment that is quickly severed by their parting. Nine months later, she bears him a little girl, which she never has the opportunity to hold or see.
The story picks up eight years later with huge gaps and unexplained backstory that you are left to fill in on your own. Suddenly, Elisabeth shows up on Charles Godwin’s doorstep who is the father of their child. She has been hired as a governess and meets her daughter for the first time. He is appalled that she has broken her promise and quickly goes to dismiss her but gives her one month’s notice. Elizabeth is horrified to find a bratty little girl, Louisa, who is disrespectful and unschooled because governess after governess gives up on the unruly child.
Then the story takes an unseen twist. Charles is still married to a woman who lies in a coma after a riding accident ten years earlier. Like the mad wife of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre, she is tucked away in a room, lying in a bed, unresponsive with open eyes, a paralyzed body, and the inability to move or talk. (Of course, medically speaking because she’s been that way for ten years, unable to swallow food or water, you have to believe the story is plausible. It takes a bit of imagination on your part. In 1846, I doubt she would have survived but a few months.)
Nevertheless, the story continues. Elizabeth forges a relationship with her daughter, but swears to Charles not to tell her the truth. As the days pass, Charles and Elisabeth rekindle their affections for one another and begin a sexual affair. So what happens next? Well, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Pay $2.99 and stream it from Amazon and find out, or read the other reviews.
It’s a strange plot with a lot of holes and unexplained twists and turns. The affair between Charles and Elisabeth is understandable because of their odd relationship of having had a child together. Charles is obviously lonely and love-starved because of his unresponsive wife. Elizabeth sees Charles as the man who took her virginity, gave her a child, and who she fell in love with when they first met. Louisa is angry for having no mother and obviously acting out due to her own inward pain.
Regardless of the plot holes, the movie does have endearing qualities and touching points. You can identify with the character’s emotions and their motivations. However, in the end you will be left to judge the outcome on your own – was it right or wrong and will God have mercy on their souls?
Is it the best period movie on my list? Not quite, but for entertainment quality and acting it has its merits.