The Governess (1998) is set in the 1830’s, and it tells the story of Rosina (Minnie Driver) the pampered daughter of a London Sephardic family whose father dies unexpectedly and leaves the family in debt. Faced with the choices of the Austen ladies in a similar situation a century before (marriage, domestic work, or prostitution), she rejects marriage and tries her hand at being a governess. For marketing purposes, she poses as a Christian lady and goes to work for an odd family living on the Isle of Skye. Rosina has an affair with her Scottish Protestant employer (Tom Wilkinson), and predictably, it does not end happily. She also collaborates with him on his experiments in the chemistry of early photography, and their collaboration, too, is problematic. In the end, she goes her own way.
The movie opened to rapturous reviews from many critics, who hailed the beautiful photography in this film set in the early days of photography. It won several British and European film awards. The soundtrack is also notable, featuring both chazzanut by Maurice Martin and vocals by Ofra Haza.
I was all prepared to enjoy this movie: I have a weakness for costume dramas. There were some things about The Governess that I did enjoy very much: it portrays parts of Jewish life (in this case, Sephardic Jewish life) that are rarely depicted onscreen, and while not everything is authentic, a lot is quite well done. On the other hand, the story is just plain stupid, an unwholesome fantasy.
The governess of the title is a young Jewish woman who appears to be well educated, but without much in the way of either scruples or common sense. (However, the screenplay doesn’t make much sense either, so maybe that was inevitable.) She masquerades as a Christian to take a job teaching children, and expects to support her mother and sister on the wages she receives. Much is made of the need to keep her Jewishness a secret, but she apparently keeps a considerable number of keepsakes in her room that any nosy maid or child could find.
Despite the fact that her mother and sister are dependent on her wages, Rosina initiates an affair with her employer, pitches noisy fits when he eventually rejects her, and after doing what she can to make domestic life a living hell (presenting his wife with a naked photo of her husband, in the middle of a dinner party) she hops in a carriage to go back to London, carrying stolen camera lenses, and with their daughter in tow! (The daughter then disappears from the film — what was that about?)
Leaving most of the ten commandments in ruins behind her (at least she didn’t kill anyone, I suppose) she lives happily ever after as a fashionable photographer in London.
It is indeed a very pretty film, with a very pretty soundtrack. The chazzanut at various points, especially the opening credits, is marvelous. Ofra Haza’s voice is beautiful (but why not employ any of several wonderful Sephardic singers?) The trouble is, this film hasn’t much going for it other than “pretty.” As a feminist film, it fails miserably, because it does not begin to grapple with the real situation of women at the time: they were far too vulnerable to pull the stunts Rosina does. It would have been much more plausible for her boss to kick her out the door empty-handed, to walk back to London or to die of cold and starvation.
What about the Jewish elements? Beautiful chazzanut, yes. And it is true that the Sephardic community of London from the time of the Commonwealth onwards has many stories worth telling, stories with lots of rich costumes and romantic intrigue. I just wish this had been one of those, instead of being such an unbelievable yarn.
Jewish identity seems to mean a great deal to Rosina (we see her lighting a clandestine Shabbat candle, and attempting to make herself a little Passover seder, wrapping herself in her father’s tallit), but it does not seem to inform her behavior at all.
If you want to see a romantic story about a stubborn Jewish woman in a fictionalized past, go watch Yentl. It is romantic and a bit silly in parts, but at least Streisand’s heroine knows what she wants. It says something very, very bad about The Governess that Yentl’s plot is more plausible.