The Da Silvas are a contented and affectionate family, secure in the vibrant warmth of the Sephardic Jewish community in the London of the early 1840's. The family's eldest daughter, Rosina (Minnie Driver), is a spirited young woman who secretly dreams of going on the stage. Headstrong and charming, she is the delight of her father. But when Rosina's father is murdered, his shocked family are plunged into debt. Rejecting the confines of an arranged marriage, Rosina resolves instead to support her family herself and make her way in the world outside.
But Rosina's quickly realizes that her Jewishness will bar the door to any employment opportunities in the larger world. Necessity and her delight in play acting prompt her to invent a new identity. Securing a position as a governess, Rosina -- now calling herself Mary Blackchurch -- journeys anxiously to a remote Scottish island where even the landscape seems alien to everything she knows.
Her new home is as bleak as the welcome she receives from her new employers, the wealthy Cavendish family. "Miss Blackchurch's" charge is the precocious and spoiled Clementina (Florence Hoath), whose isolation and craving for attention make her a nightmarish pupil. Mrs. Cavendish (Harriet Walter), trapped and disappointed by her life, treats the governess with wary condescension. Her husband Charles (Tom Wilkinson) is indifferent to domestic matters, completely absorbed in his pioneering studies of photography.
Rosina finds it hard to fit in to this strange family. The tension of maintaining her disguise heightens her loneliness and she longs for the ritual of home. Slowly, however, Rosina forms an uneasy friendship with Clementina. At the same time, her knowledge and interest in natural science forces Charles Cavendish to notice her. He reveals to her that he has devised a way to print beautiful photographic images, but can't prevent the pictures from quickly fading away. Fascinated with his work, Rosina convinces him to let her become his laboratory assistant, and through a combination of inspiration and accident, she discovers a way to permanently capture Charles' images on paper by making "salt fixed" prints. As the two of them begin to explore the esthetic and sensual dimensions of this new art form, the excitement of their collaboration soon heats up into a passionate and uncontrollable affair.
When the Cavendish's troubled son Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) arrives home in disgrace from university, he is drawn to Rosina, unaware of the relationship she has with his father. His attraction and curiosity intensify the strain in the household and threaten finally to expose Rosina's deception. Charles, for his part finds the intensity of their love frightening and ultimately unbearable. Something will have to give.
Returning to London, Rosina faces a further trial when she discovers that cholera has devastated the cherished world she left behind. But now Rosina is strong enough to reclaim her identity and make a life for herself on her own terms. She sets up as a photographer in the ravaged Jewish community, becoming celebrated for her work and drawing what remains of her family around her.
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