William Nicholson's Firelight (1997) is a highly unusual animal: a period film that is not based either on a novel or on a true story. This is easily enough to pique my interest, as I adore period films and endless iterations of the same stories can get tiresome indeed. As a novelist and veteran screenwriter, Nicholson seemed primed to offer a narratively rich film in his debut venture as a director.
Alas. Firelight attempts to be many things, from erotica to moonlit romance, to gothic tale, feminist apologia, and heartwarming family drama, and succeeds in no respect. The story drifts uneasily among its period trappings, approaching complex adult emotions and choices and rendering them in paint-by-numbers fashion. Sophie Marceau, astonishingly gorgeous with a pout worthy of Isabelle Adjani, plays Elisabeth Laurier, who is so desperate to pay off her father's debts that she agrees to have sex and bear a child with a mysterious nobleman in want of an heir, a woefully miscast Stephen Dillane, who doesn't ever seem to wash his hair. They have three increasingly torrid nights together, she gives birth to a daughter, and spends the next seven years... well, it's not really clear what she does during those seven years, except produce a book's-worth of flowery watercolors, but in the end she becomes her long-lost daughter's governess.
The opening had the potential to be as prudishly tawdry as a Harlequin bodice ripper or as cerebral and clinically cold as the sex scenes in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman. Nicholson strides right through the middle, offering us a few carefully narrated minutes in which firelight is portentously discussed and the two lovers engage in sex that is neither the act of a man paying a reluctant prostitute nor two people enjoying a bit of illicit sex for a cause. Instead we get all romance, flickering light, heaving breasts, and murmured conversations littered with phrases that scream "these two people are in love, FOR REALS." To paraphrase Bridget Jones, this can't just be shagging, a weird obsession with firelight means true love.
For all that, Nicholson actually has an extraordinary talent for a freshman director for creating exquisite compositions. If the film never quite feels like the silly romance that it is, it's because of the painterly palette of blues, greys, soft washed-out reds, and a veritable plethora of all shades of white and ivory. Icy water, frosted windows, and snow-covered beaches are used to great effect. There are occasional moments of visual wit, as when a shot of aristocrats dancing the polka cuts to a shot of round-rumped sheep trotting in a meadow. Firelight looks so classy that one can be swept away at times, though the clumsy and too frequently obvious and vague dialogue inevitably interferes. The montage of years passing had the potential to be something really lovely, an aching evocation of longing, but it's spoiled by narration so shallowly melodramatic that the images are almost tarnished.
There is nothing wrong with melodrama. Indeed, the melodrama is one my favorite genres. But operatic emotions fall flat in the quiet of a polite period piece when the characters remain amorphous and tied to hackneyed conventions. Elisabeth supposedly engages in what amounts to short-term prostitution for the sake of her father - whom we never see and about whom she never speaks. It's assumed, rather than shown, that she adores her daughter. Most viewers will probably accept that readily enough, but it's a snooze. Nicholson wants us to root for her and as a result, every potential for a bit of selfishness, nastiness, frustration, or anything really beyond perfect maternal martyrdom and carefully repressed and adoring desire for the man she had sex with three times, is jettisoned with fancy speeches. She's awfully nice for an impoverished governess forced into prostitution and the sale of her daughter.
In the same way, we are supposed to root for Charles Godwin (spoiler alert, I suppose, for his name). The fact that his wife is paralyzed and possibly brain-dead - how they've kept her alive for ten years is anyone's guess - is somehow supposed to make his dubious actions entirely acceptable, even self-sacrificing, for a romantic hero. The fact that he hires a woman to screw him and bear his heir is TOTALLY HONORABLE because his wife can't do it.
I wish these characters were totally unlikable because then their actions and choices might be compelling. Nicholson never allows them to be pressed to the wall, everything is explained and justified. These people have no trouble articulating their emotions, maybe because they're awfully simplistic. Every scene is a momentous confrontation, the crux of a conflict that is quickly resolved, anticlimax after anticlimax, but there are few glimpses of these characters actually living out their lives. There are occasional sparks of insight into the condition of being female in 19th century England, especially poor and female, but they aren't supported by the story, which at base is nothing more than a fairy tale. Elisabeth speechifies about the prisons in which women live their lives to the (atrociously obnoxious) child Louisa, but mopes over the less than scrupulous Godwin because he can't put her in his most attractive prison. There was potential for this film to be about how impossible truly ethical choices were for poor young women who couldn't be the angel in the house, but any political content is well and truly smothered by a moony romance and an acute need to verbalize every emotion.
The actors are hampered by ponderous dialogue and a story that rushes to resolve every conflict with the grace of buffalo. Sophie Marceau emotes, but to no avail, Stephen Dillane gazes soulfully at her and leaps naked from a lake, in an unfortunate tribute to Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice that points up this film's considerable flaws. Dominique Belcourt plays the child, Louisa, well enough, but I am at a loss as to why anyone cares very much for such an unpleasant, snobbish little brat. Christopher Gunning's score insists on an unearned earth-shattering romanticism, which unfortunately emphasizes the gap between emotion explicated and emotion acted, but Nic Morris's cinematography is lovely, and the only genuine treat the movies offers.
Would I go easier on this film if my taste for original period dramas were better satisfied? Probably. Watching Firelight, I was distracted by the potential I saw for a much better film, one that grappled with the complicated politics of sex, romance, and parenthood between two people holding totally unequal power due to gender, class, and wealth, that allowed its characters to have flaws that aren't immediately justified or brushed aside, that rejected thoughtless romance in favor of a story with some sting, that trusted the viewer enough to understand what's going on and who the characters are without stating everything baldly. Over and over again, this film presents alternate paths, tantalizing glimpses of more interesting narrative directions, and over and over again, Nicholson ignored the fork and plowed straight ahead.