Firelight (1997) is a little known gem about how women in the early nineteenth century were often not only robbed of their personality, individual desire and ambition, but also the right to raise their own children, because men had complete control over their destinies. The film brings to mind such feminine bildungsroman as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, with its study of a poor, but clever and resilient young woman who is determined to be independent and authentic in a world that wants her to be neither.
The film was the directorial debut of William Nicholson, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplays for Shadowlands and Gladiator. Nicholson would never direct another film after Firelight, which I found to be a pity, as the film is beautifully shot, with Nicholson’s direction and Nic Morris’ cinematography coming together to create many striking images. The film also stands out as an example of how talented both Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane are.
While Sophie is best remembered as Elektra in The World Is Not Enough, and rightfully so as she gives one of the best performances of any Bond villain, this film shows another side to her. A quieter, more measured approach to her craft, with moments of striking emotion that elevate the film. Dillane gives a performance that matches Sophie’s perfectly, with his expressions showing his struggles to express his emotions in a society that expects him to be stoic and without sexual desires. In this way, Sophie and Dillane’s characters mirror each other, as they both find release in their passionate mental and physical love for one another.
In the twilight of Firelight
The film begins with Elisabeth Laurier (played by Sophie Marceau) going for a rather unorthodox interview with an aristocratic gentleman, who sits behind a screen whilst an old woman, a representative, asks Elisabeth questions in order to ascertain her suitability for baring a child for him. Elisabeth does not know why the gentleman wants to procure such “services” from her, but she does not ask too many questions as she is desperate to obtain enough money to settle enormous debts that have led to her father’s imprisonment.
She travels to an isolated seaside resort in France, where she looks upon the male guests, one in particular, in a bid to ascertain who her “employer” is. After dinner on the night of her arrival, she finds a handsome man in her room, who reveals himself to be the anonymous gentleman. Elisabeth hides her feelings of anxiety and sadness at what they are to do together, but cries when he mechanically has sex with her whilst she is still wearing her undergarments.
He tries to acquit himself of any wrong doing concerning her the next morning, as he clearly feels remorseful for entering into their arrangement. Elisabeth tells him that neither of them need to feel guilty because they are not having a love affair. Instead of being comforted by this, he seems upset. That night they have sex again, but this time he is more tender towards Elisabeth, although she still sobs afterwards and tells him that she is glad she will never know his true identity. He seems disturbed by this, but does not say anything.
The next day, they stand on the cold, pebble covered beach together looking out onto the gray sea. Elisabeth asks if it is wise that he be seen with her, but dismisses her rather sarcastic concerns. She explains that she loves the quiet and the sea and sky seemingly becoming one on the horizon, and tells him she wants to scream. Although he encourages her to do so, she cannot. He asks her if she enjoyed their relations the night before, and while she replies in the negative, she explains that she could come to. That night they make love.
Even though they seem to have shared a connection, the gentleman is cold to Elisabeth the next day on the ship that is bound for England. He explains that everything will be taken care of by the woman who acted as his representative in the interview. Elisabeth is upset, but accepts that it must be so.
Her labour is difficult, and incredibly painful, but Elisabeth gives birth to a living little girl, who is swiftly taken away from her. Over the years she keeps a book, in which she paints beautiful flowers and leaves, which commemorates her English daughter’s birthdays.
A decadent party is shown, where an effete Frenchman is conducting the party guests in a new dance called the polka. The gentleman who spent the three nights with Sophie is shown, and it is revealed that his name is Charles Godwin (played by Stephen Dillane), and he is a landowner who lives in genteel poverty due to his father’s flamboyant and costly lifestyle in London. Charles’ father, Lord Clare (played by Joss Ackland) shows open contempt for his practical, frugal son when Charles introduces him to John Taylor (played by Kevin Anderson), a sheep farmer from Ohio with whom Charles hopes to do business.
At the Godwin estate, which is isolated in the English countryside, Sophie arrives as the new governess to Louisa Godwin (played by Dominique Belcourt), Charles’ brattish, spoilt and foul-mouthed young daughter. Louisa is, of course, the child who Elisabeth gave up seven years before, and Elisabeth has finally tracked her daughter and made sure she has been employed as her governess. The servants at the estate are dismissive towards Elisabeth, because she is the fourth governess that year, due to Louise’s terrible behaviour. Elisabeth is undaunted despite she and Louisa’s first meeting culminating in the little girl insulting her nationality and telling her to “Bugger off then, lady” as the farm workers tell the sheep to. That night at dinner, Elisabeth learns from Charle’s sister in law, the mild mannered, Constance (played by Lia Williams), that Mrs Amelia “Amy” Godwin is comatose after having a severe riding accident a decade before, and due to this, Constance runs the household.
When Charles returns to the estate, he is horrified and furious at Elisabeth’s presence and her “breaking” of their agreement. He tells Constance that Elisabeth is to be dismissed immediately, but Constance tells him that a governess cannot be dismissed without a character because they make their homes with their employers. Charles is upset, but agrees to give Elisabeth one month’s notice. He takes Elisabeth to see his wife, who lives in an upstairs bedroom, bedridden and entirely unresponsive, although Charles says that he believes Amy can understand everything he says, and therefore he confides everything in her. He then makes Elisabeth promise that she will never reveal to Louisa that she is her real mother, as Louisa believes that Charles adopted her after she was left on the steps of a local inn.
Louise refuses to cooperate with Elisabeth, and mocks her when she tries to ask Louisa what school taught knowledge she has. She speaks to Charles, who gives Elisabeth permission to do what she must in order to get Louisa to behave during her lessons. However, when Elisabeth locks Louisa in the schoolroom, Charles tries to physically extract the key from Elisabeth. She explains to him that Louisa is disliked because she only loves Charles, and that his lackadaisical discipline has led to his daughter being impossible and ignorant in every way. She promise never to harm their daughter and to do everything that she does to Louisa to herself. Charles reluctantly agrees to Elisabeth’s methods.
Louisa continues to be unresponsive, refusing to eat and calling Elisabeth a servant. Because Louisa will not eat, Elisabeth doesn’t either, and when she throws paint in Louisa’s face, she throws it in her own, too. She then explains to Louisa that as a woman she has only two options: to be a wife and mother who has no rights, whose body and property belong to her husband, or to be a governess, as she is, which means loneliness and exclusion from society. That all gates will be closed to her when she comes of age as a woman, but that the only thing they cannot bar is Louisa’s mind, and that she must do everything to educate herself. This seems to make some impression on Louisa.
John Taylor then tells Charles that he must return to Ohio to implement what Charles has taught him about sheep farming, and to take the part of the flock he has bought from Charles. Charles is then surprised, and seemingly disturbed, by John’s desire to marry Elisabeth whom he finds to be very cultured and beautiful. But when he proposes to Elisabeth, she refuses. Later, when Charles asks if she did not accept John’s proposal because of Louisa, she replies that it is so, although it is suggested that it is not only because of Louisa.
Louisa slowly becomes more responsive to Elisabeth’s teaching, which comprises of her teaching Louisa how to read through finely painted cards with a picture and corresponding word on them. Louisa proves to be bright, if still reluctant to fully engage in her own education. Although Louisa takes some comfort in Elisabeth’s story about firelight, which says that at the end of the day, in the glow of the firelight, there are no rules.
It’s a kind of magic. Firelight makes time stand still. When you put out the lamps and sit in the firelight’s glow there aren’t any rules any more. You can do what you want, say what you want, be what you want, and when the lamps are lit again, time starts again, and everything you said or did is forgotten. More than forgotten it never happened.
During this time, Elisabeth also discovers that Louisa rows to a boat house in the middle of the lake, where she pretends to have a mother to talk to. Elisabeth also discovers that Charles swims naked in the freezing lake every morning, and so Elisabeth goes there to watch both Louisa and Charles.
One night, after Elisabeth has put Louisa to bed, she finds Charles in the schoolroom. He remarks on the pretend reading methods she uses because Louisa can just look at the picture instead of reading the word, but Elisabeth explains that pretend eventually becomes the reality. Charles then asks her about the firelight story, and she recounts it to him, too. Charles begs her to promise that what came before between them can never happen again, but Elisabeth does not make such a promise, and they give into their feelings for each other and make love.
Lord Clare arrives at the estate, bringing with him his cultured mistress, Molly, and a band of musicians. He throws a large Christmas party at the estate, during which Molly comments to Charles that Elisabeth is very lovely and congratulates him. Charles awkwardly compliments Elisabeth’s teaching skills, amusing Molly, who then cuts in on Charles and Elisabeth who are dancing. Elisabeth is flustered and returns to her room, where she dances by herself, Charles joins her shortly afterwards, and they dance as they could not downstairs.
Lord Clare then crudely asks Elisabeth if she and Charles are having an affair, to which Elisabeth, after making it quite clear to Lord Clare that she is not some limp little thing to be pushed around, that they are. Lord Clare seems pleased by this, especially after it is clear that Elisabeth loves Charles and does not want to ruin him publicly or privately.
Elisabeth and Charles discuss Louisa’s pretend game, and Charles admits that he imagines the three of them going away together and being a family. Elisabeth observes that this is an impossible dream. Charles then asks Elisabeth to spend the night with him, which she does.
Louisa finds them together the next morning, and is so distraught that she tries to cross the frozen lake to the boathouse. Elisabeth follows her and begs her not to leave her before the ice breaks. Elisabeth wages into the freezing cold water and saves her daughter from drowning.
At their next lesson together, Louisa finally learns to read when Elisabeth writes only the word on a card instead of drawing the accompanying picture. Louisa is amazed and delighted, as is Elisabeth.
Men come to the estate to do an appraisal of the value of the property, and Constance tearfully informs Elisabeth that the estate is to be sold. It is suggested that this is because of Lord Clare’s extravagant lifestyle. Charles later confirms the impending sale to an upset Constance whilst Elisabeth listens wordlessly from the door.
Charles then speaks to Amy about his love for Elisabeth, and how he wishes that Amy had not had a wasted life. He then asks her if it would not be better if he freed her from the prison in which she has lived for so long. He tearfully opens the window, puts out the fire and takes Amy’s bed clothes off, before asking God to receive his beloved wife whilst sobbing at her bedside.
The next morning Amy is found dead in her bed, and the doctor observes that it was a pity that the fire went out. Constance seems to know what Charles has done, but does not say anything in the doctor’s presence.
Later, she finally shows her long felt love for Charles, but feels deeply humiliated when he does not return even a tenth of her feelings. At Amy’s funeral, Constance realises that Elisabeth and Charles love each other deeply, and although she tells Elisabeth she could have made Charles happy, she asks Elisabeth to love him for both of them.
In Amy’s now dust sheet covered room, Elisabeth asks Charles if he had any part in Amy’s death. He admits that he did, and tells her that he must live with the guilt for the rest of his life, and Elisabeth replies that must, too. He asks if she feels any regret, and she admits that she does not, before they embrace.
Louisa goes into Elisabeth’s room and finds the beautifully illustrated book that Elisabeth has dedicated to her English daughter. Louisa then finds Elisabeth and asks why she gave her up, to which Elisabeth admits that she actually sold Louisa for £500 pounds, a small fortune. Louisa says that she is happy that is was a lot of money, and they hug for the first time, with Louisa tearfully calling an equally overcome Elisabeth “Mama”.
Charles, Elisabeth and Louisa then leave the estate on a snow covered morning, setting off for a new and happy life free of all the things that kept them apart before.
I cannot recommend this movie enough. I discovered it quite by chance a number of years ago, and was attracted to it because of my love of period pieces, especially those that are inclined towards the gothic; as well as the similarities that the story shared with Jane Eyre. As I said at the beginning of this post, this film is incredibly beautifully made. It is a love letter to the English countryside, which sparkles with icy beauty throughout. And the way in which light is enhanced and filmed is wonderful, especially in Louisa and Elisabeth’s scenes together, as well as during Charles and Elisabeth’s love scenes.
The relationship between Charles and Elisabeth unfolds with gorgeous intensity. Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane look at each other with so many complex emotions without looking overblown or stodgy. I am always particularly impressed by Dillane’s capacity to convey so much through his eyes, which are very fine and gentle. And Sophie communicates her character’s deep love and sexual desire for Dillane’s in such a nuanced way, which adds to her character rather than making Elisabeth seem one dimensional.
The heart of the film is Elisabeth’s love for Louisa, and those are the scenes that really drive the story forward. Although it is initially incredibly difficult to sit through the scenes where Louisa mistreats Elisabeth so terribly, it makes the later scenes, when they slowly begin to connect with one another, all the more powerful and poignant. My favourite scene of the film is when Elisabeth explains to Louisa why she needs to educate herself, and what the realities of being a woman are. Although her explantation is framed within the early 19th century, it is clear that her words are just as true now, and that women still need to strive to free themselves from constraints placed upon their sex. The character of Amy, as with Bertha in Jane Eyre, shows the prison that marriage could act as for women who had no other options. Elisabeth and Amy are mirrored in that both women are trapped by the strictures of their world, but it is only Elisabeth who is able to free herself on her own terms. And, of course, Constance is the third part of the representation of women in the film, the lonely spinster who is rejected by the man she has loved for so long. But even she shows the strength that women possess, as she is not made pathetic or vindictive by her disappointment and unrequited feelings. She bares them with the same stoicism that Elisabeth possesses.
I hope that you watch this film, and I hope you love it as much as I do. And even if you don’t, then that’s fine, because this film deserves to be discussed more widely. It is a film that has stayed with me for many years, and which I believe deserves far more recognition because not only is it exquisitely made, but it also explores so many important themes.