[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, September 4, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
“What is it about this house? The moment I walk in, I want to kill myself.” The speaker (that entertaining old blusterer Joss Ackland) is not an important character in Firelight, and he’s half-kidding, but we take his point. The Goodwin estate, somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century English countryside, is a pretty glum place. Nobody ever looks comfortable, or even at home there. The master of the house (Stephen Dillane) even hazards a joke about it: “All these huge rooms and we live our lives within three feet of the fire.” But then, that’s because screenwriter and first-time director William Nicholson has determined that no scene in the movie should lack a visual—and almost always verbally underscored—reference to his movie’s title and wishfully poetic central image.
Firelight reportedly sprang from Nicholson’s affection for the perfervid Gothic romances Hollywood used to do in the 1940s. That’s cool. The best of them—the Wyler-Olivier Wuthering Heights, the Welles-Fontaine Jane Eyre, the (non-period) Hitchcock-Olivier-Fontaine Rebecca—were swell movies and grand entertainment. Firelight is a stillborn movie and, apart from a couple chances to watch the beauteous Sophie Marceau writhing passionately in the titular glow, about as entertaining as sorting a drawerful of antimacassars.
The premise has Swiss miss Marceau entering into secret contract with anonymous nobleman Dillane to share three nights of mechanical sex with him and then, nine months later, hand over the product of their union so that he will have an heir. It seems, though she and we won’t learn it for a while (seven years in her case, what only feels like seven years in ours), that the nobleman’s lovely bride (Annabel Giles) suffered an unspecified accident shortly after their wedding and has lain in a very decorous-looking coma ever since. Pity that. Pity also that, despite the sex having turned decidedly unmechanical by the third night, Marceau and Dillane must part and pretend they never met. Until, that is, she turns up at the manor house seven years later to become the governess for his/their daughter.
There’s some kind of lurking feminist theme: Marceau as a proto-modern woman (who prefers three nights and nine months of specific service to selling herself in a lifelong marriage contract) looking to educate her daughter for independent adulthood (the kid’s a brat and has driven away all previous tutors). But as storytelling, Firelight fizzles. The subsidiary characters—a stalwart but not-quite-pretty sister-in-law (Lia Williams) who keeps house for Charles, waits for him to fall in love with her, and bravely utters author’s-epigrams like “The house died the day Amy didn’t die”; an earnest but dull American sheep-breeder (Kevin Anderson) who’s come to take tips from Charles (no laughing, please) and more or less instantaneously fall in love with the new governess—have only the most predictable moves to make. And the secret, “impossible” romance between Dillane and Marceau proves plenty possible. Of course, it would help if, every time Dillane dressed for outdoors, he didn’t end up looking like somebody drawn by Edward Gorey. – Richard T. Jameson