"The Governess" began as a diary writer-director Sandra Goldbacher wrote from the point of view of the title character, Rosina da Silva. Initially Goldbacher was inspired by a desire to explore the two very different influences of her own cultural heritage -- her father is an Italian Jew and her mother came from the Isle of Skye. "I wanted to take a character out of one really strongly defined, close-knit, vivid culture into another world, and look at what it would be like for her to fall in love with someone from this other culture, while also denying her own identity."
Producer Sarah Curtis ("Mrs. Brown") was aware of Goldbacher's short documentary work, and when she was sent the first part of the Rosina diary, she immediately connected with it. Goldbacher's completed screenplay had the same effect on backers, who also responded quickly.
Rosina's subterfuge and the clashing cultures she experiences have modern parallels, and the emotional journey she takes is resonant. "Some of it is based on anti-Semitism that I've encountered myself," says Goldbacher. "At my primary school the only two other Jewish girls and I felt completely alien, and that was only 20 years ago."
Setting the story at a time of pioneering work in photography -- with the search for the fixation formula in which Charles Cavendish is absorbed and which becomes the common ground between Cavendish and the fascinated Rosina -- provided a striking theme. "Discovering fixation of photography worked as a metaphor for seeking love and trying to possess someone else," says Goldbacher, "and for the way lovers want to see each other, creating an image of the other person which isn't actually real." The way in which Rosina and Cavendish approach their work is revealing. "His is very formal and obsessive, narrow and scientific, while hers is imaginative, artistic and emotional. He seeks to make an accurate record of reality. She seeks a new means of expression to create her own unreality."
The casting of Rosina was of paramount importance, and getting Minnie Driver was a coup for the filmmakers. Since the young Londoner's breakthrough in "Circle Of Friends," she has been based in Los Angeles, and apart from her appearance in the James Bond film "Goldeneye" she has worked non-stop in American pictures, most recently Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting," for which she received an Academy Award nomination.
Sandra Goldbacher says "Minnie is one of a kind. There's a real modernity about her, but an ability to be vulnerable and lay herself open completely, which is what I really wanted. She was the only one I approached with it." Sarah Curtis concurs. "It was absolutely crucial that Rosina be played by someone with charisma and the maturity to hold the film, someone fiercely independent, and an original. Minnie has that combination of qualities. She's a very strong personality, a real screen presence, and a brave actress unafraid to tackle big, difficult things."
Driver was excited by "the breadth of the character and the opportunity to do a great part that drives the film." She was attracted by Rosina's perceptions and deceptions. "She's a very quick-changing, sharp woman. Rosina play acts, she role plays constantly. With each of the different people she is somebody else. It's not in a manipulative way, it's purely that she is something of a chameleon and quite changeable. I think she's extremely sharp and nothing gets by her. She's not passive, she's aggressive about the things she's feeling, and feeling to the zenith."
"Woman are great observers," says Driver, "the smart ones, the ones that don't become consumptive candy floss. Everything is assimilated. It's just that at the time the film is set in their chances to act on what they see were reduced, their choices were reduced. That's the difference between an independent woman now, who can pretty much do what she wants and if restrictions are imposed she can go to court, and an independent woman then. Women had to choose their battleground very carefully because so much was taken for granted. Rosina fights for love and passion. But unfortunately Cavendish abuses his position as a man, ultimately to hurt her."
"She takes away a great skill, a practical skill, with her, and an enormous loss of innocence. And whether or not one is compensation for the other, I don't know. I don't think it is. I think it is just the way life is."
Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty," "Wilde") takes the role of Charles Cavendish, the gentleman scientist whose cool obsession with order is overthrown by his love for Rosina. He was drawn to "The Governess," he says, because "It's a simple story, but the detailed way in which it turns over is unique in my experience. You want to know what happens next, there are really interesting characters and it has a real, modern feel to it." Cavendish he understood immediately, although he rejects "the myth of the repressed Englishman, an idea which started in the second half of the 19th Century... It's just that Cavendish is like that. He's a control freak who wants things in their places with labels on. There were a lot of those gentlemen inventors about at his time, with prodigious energy."
The filmmakers hope to overturn people's expectations of British period film. "It isn't picturesque," Driver declares, "because what's going on isn't picturesque. It's a time observed as it was, but they haven't been anal about making it beautiful and losing the reality. It's as real as now."
"I wanted it to be quite strange and hard and odd," says Goldbacher, "to create these two different worlds: the exotic, labyrinthine almost subterranean world of the Sephardic Jewish quarter that is almost underneath London, and the gentile world as Rosina first sees it, which is harsh and cold, bleak and disturbing. Hopefully all the visuals have emotional connections."
Production designer Sarah Greenwood says, "We wanted it to look like life as it would have been, a reality that's believable. I think sometimes we have a very sanitized vision of what a period looks like, very quaint, very pretty. This is not conventional period material where you do a thousand and one drawing rooms. It was one of the most visual scripts I've ever read, so evocative that what it should look like immediately came to mind."
Director of Photography Ashley Rowe also found inspiration in early photography. "Early photographs were all taken with soft, natural daylight, so I've tried to simulate that kind of look and keep true to that style. Photographically this film had so much to offer. The light on the Isle of Arran was spectacular; the main problem was trying to control the weather, which is something all British D.P.'s get used to and learn to cope with. We planned a look for the film which equates with the emotional contrasts, starting off in London with rich, warm lighting and a color palette with deep reds. When Rosina arrives in Scotland the first image is bleached out and bleak and cold. In Cavendish's workroom I've tried to simulate the soft, North light early photographers got with the skylight. A lot of the key interiors are scenes at night, so we used a lot of candlelight."
Another interest to Goldbacher was to deal with the romantic cliché of the governess and the employer and rework it, making it contemporary. "I'm not interested in period or costume drama for its own sake, but the idea of the governess was a very potent figure in the 19th Century. It was the only way you could present a strong central female character who could go out into the world. There was no other way women could -- you were either a prostitute or a governess."
"We're going into a period world which is alien to people watching anyway," Driver observes, "but to see how diverse that world was within itself is fascinating. And passion against austerity is a great combination."
Principal photography on "The Governess" began in July, 1997 on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, where Brodick Castle became the Cavendish home. This was the first time the National Trust of Scotland has permitted a film unit to use the castle.
In England, Pinewood Studios housed the production for some interiors, notably the replication of Charles' specimen-crammed studio, and handsome locations included Wrotham Park, home of the Byng family for generations, Thame Park and Hampton Court House. The streets of London's 19th Century East End were recreated in the courtyards of historic Somerset House in central London.
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