Firelight

on September 04, 1998 by Kim Williamson
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A fine filmmaking debut by William Nicholson, scripter of "Shadowlands" and "Nell," this period piece has been oddly bouncing between the release slates of Miramax and Buena Vista for about a year. Judging by the resulting film, this should be a case not of "you take it" but "I want it," as French actress Sophie Marceau ("Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina") and British player Stephen Dillane ("Welcome to Sarajevo") make for a comely if distraught couple in a 19th century story of a poor Swiss governess named Elisabeth and an heirless English landowner named Charles brought together by clandestine needs and a secret bargain. The agreement: He will pay off the terrible debts of her father; she will bear Charles a child, and leave. Emotion rules what follows, in the tradition of the genre; also in the tradition, a price is paid by all.
   Nicholson's enterprise gets off to an up and down beginning. A wintry Normandy coast provides a fitting cold-and-storm backdrop to the couple's initial physical liaisons, and their playing is note-perfect for their characters and for their times. But time itself is too telescoped; on Friday evening, Elisabeth takes to their bed half-clothed ("Will this do?" she asks) and fully repressed; by Sunday, she is in naked abandon. Matters aren't helped by poor, XXX-production looping of her exaltations, or by composer Christopher Gunning's too-pretty accompaniments.
   R eturned to the surer soil of England, however, "Firelight" tells its next decade with near-perfect narrative, as Elisabeth for years seeks to find the baby she knows only by the first cry it made before being taken away. Succeeding at last, she manages to get a position at Charles' estate to raise the now seven-year-old Louisa (Dominique Belacourt). There, behind his horror of her discovery, are other gothic elements: the fiercely undisciplined Louisa, who listens to no one except her pretend mother out in a boathouse; Charles' spendthrift father (yet another evil-guy turn by Joss Ackland), gutting the family fortune; and, primarily, Charles' beloved but bedridden wife, long paralyzed to the point of muteness by accident. Amid it all, Nicholson creates a bare breathing space, a spiracle of air, for the passionate fire first lit on the Normandy coast to reignite between Elisabeth and Charles--and for Elisabeth to reunite with her little girl.
   Marceau, she of the French hauteur and orgasmic eyes, keeps the kettle of her character just shy of the boiling point, and amid that equipoise manages to make Elisabeth--who sleeps with a man she doesn't know, relinquishes her child, and then wrecks a marriage--dramatically, even profoundly appealing. National Theatre vet Dillane, working with entirely different colors, creates a somber, almost melancholy Charles who at center is full of life's bright energy, only awaiting release. Their ultimate unification, and "Firelight" itself, make for a sort of art-house version of "Love Story," but it's something for which no one will never have to say they're sorry. Starring Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane. Directed and written by William Nicholson. Produced by Brian Eastman. A Buena Vista release. Romance/drama. Rated R for sexuality and brief strong language. Running time: 104 min.
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