In the 1830s, Swiss governess Elisabeth (Sophie Marceau) makes a singular contract with British aristocrat Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane). In exchange for 500 pounds to pay off her family's debts, she agrees to conceive and bear Charles' child. (The would-be father's wife is a living vegetable as a result of a riding accident.) It is to be a purely emotionless pact, but romantic sparks are set off by their trysts. Seven years later, Elisabeth tracks down her daughter's whereabouts and, unbeknownst to Charles, gets hired as her governess. Charles is incensed at this betrayal of trust, but it soon becomes obvious that only Elisabeth can control the little girl Louisa (Dominique Belcourt), a real handful who drives governesses mad. Soon enough, that old feeling re-emerges between master and employee and the truth about their mutual feeling and Louisa's heritage eventually surfaces.

The most fun to be derived from Firelight, a rather tortured bodice-ripper, comes from discerning its all-too obvious inspirations. There's the mousy governess and mysterious lord out of Jane Eyre and Dragonwyck (with that disturbed wife thrown in for good measure); the ominously spectral house and grounds from The Turn of the Screw; the monstrously bratty kid from our old friend, The Bad Seed, and the noble teacher who strives mightily to instruct her impossible student out of The Miracle Worker. (Louisa finally, amazingly, learns to read from Elisabeth's daintily drawn flashcards.) Above all, there's the sacrificial mother's secret love gambit out of a dozen or so women's films like The Old Maid, To Each His Own, Madame X and (God save us) The Sin of Madelon Claudet.

With its magnificently hokey music score by Christopher Gunning that calls up the lushest excesses of Miklos Rozsa and Alfred Newman, the exquisitely firelit period interiors and all that blasted romantic repression, writer/director William Nicholson was obviously out to make the artiest 'chick film' ever made. He wrote the screenplay for Shadowlands, which took an opposite route from this one, erring on the side of mousiness. Firelight is both Gothically over-the-top and funereally slow in its recounting. 'I wish I could shout,' Elisabeth tells Charles at the outset of their relationship. When her physical release comes (twice: in childbirth and post-orgasm), you only cringe. The humor is minimal and forced, as when an aged servant remarks, 'Can't bend. Wig falls off' (twice). Every now and then, Nicholson remembers to include an atmospheric aside like that, as when Charles says, 'All these huge rooms and we live our lives within three feet of the fire.' The scenes of him 'talking' to his prostrate wife are especially dire, as she resembles nothing so much as Julie Hagerty playing a comatose Stepford Wife. Oh, and we forgot to include a suicide attempt that has Elisabeth making like Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin (or is it Lillian Gish in Way Down East?), trekking precariously over crushed ice.

What Firelight most tellingly lacks are riveting star performances to inevitably reel us in to its romantic absurdity. When, say, Bette Davis finally got to embrace her recalcitrant real daughter in The Old Maid, those thyroid eyes rolled back in a maternal ecstasy that was both subtle (for her) and breathtaking. When Marceau and Belcourt enact a similar climax here, it's like the conjoining of two very weepy mice. Marceau, who recently enacted the least affecting Anna Karenina ever put to screen, is a merely competent, charisma-challenged performer with a shrill, narrow range. When she replies, 'Nothing,' in answer to Charles' query as to what she's thinking, she's all-too readily believable. She seems to find her true metier in the heaving soft-porn sex scenes where she calls up a battery of useful (if none-too-fresh) effects: the stoic, turned-away face as her man, in the immortal words of The Artist Formerly, etc., 'gets to rammin''; that single, perfect post-coital tear that drools down her cheek; her nervous twitchiness while watching her lover take his daily skinny dip. She is nicely matched up physically to Belcourt, however, sharing the same rather pinched face, furtive eyes and pouty mouth. With minimal scripted aid, Belcourt makes a rote brat. Dillane, for his part, equals Marceau in dim wattage, enacting Charles on but two notes: nostril-flaring anger and nostril-flaring passion. Kevin Anderson has a badly conceived role as a failed American suitor of Elisabeth's, but, somehow, here his bogus, rather flat quality is affecting (as it was for his Joe Gillis in the musical of Sunset Boulevard). The booming Joss Ackland mercifully juices things up momentarily as Charles' old reprobate of a father. Lia Williams gets the 'Geraldine Fitzgerald part' as the unloved sister-in-law and brings nothing new to it.

--David Noh