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Review: Romantic period piece 'Firelight' sizzling with heat

Web posted on: Friday, September 04, 1998 12:27:23 PM

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "Firelight" is a beautifully crafted period piece reminiscent of those costume dramas made in the 1940s, which usually featured stars like Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine or her sister Olivia de Havilland.

In keeping with that dramatic and romantic genre, "Firelight" is set in England in the 19th century. The film stars French actress Sophie Marceau, who is best known to American audiences for her appearance opposite Mel Gibson in "Braveheart." Her leading man, English actor Stephen Dillane, starred in the film "Welcome To Sarajevo."

Paul's Pix: "Firelight"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k

Marceau plays a Swiss governess named Elisabeth, who is desperate to pay off her father's debts. Dillane is the only son of an British aristocrat and married to a woman who was severely injured in a riding accident. He needs an heir, which his wife can't provide, so he strikes a bargain with the governess: He'll pay off her father's debts if she will secretly bear him a child.

Of course, the child has to be conceived the old-fashioned way. During a long weekend at a remote inn in France, the couple find themselves falling in love -- but that's not part of the deal. So they part, and nine months later Elizabeth has a daughter who is whisked away moments after birth.

But Elisabeth is haunted by feelings for both her daughter and Charles, so seven years later, she successfully tracks them down in England and is hired as her own daughter's governess while Charles is away on business. Upon his return he's furious and demands that she quit. But before she can leave, their love is rekindled.

Affairs in firelight

The title of the film comes from a story that Elisabeth tells Charles in the heat of the moment, so to speak. She says that during the night when the only light is firelight, time stands still, and what is said and done in firelight is forgotten when morning comes. How convenient, when you're having an affair. Of course, when that thin rationale comes out of Marceau's perfectly sculptured lips in that wonderful French accent, my reaction is "Right on, no problem. Makes sense to me!"

Obstacles preventing people from loving one another in modern times are largely self-created. But in the 19th century, society dictated very strict rules which could force people apart and made unrequited love a lot more interesting and, of course, dramatic.

"Firelight" was written and directed by William Nicholson, who also wrote the screenplays for "Shadowlands" (which was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay) and "Nell," which starred Jodie Foster. With his directorial debut, Nicholson has created a film dripping in romantic ambiance and crackling with sexual tension.

There's just one little stupid plot point in this script that kind of bothered me. The wife is in a coma, and in the 1800s, before intravenous feeding, people couldn't live in a coma. But never mind. Just go with it. I did. The half-dead wife in the attic is essential to the story.

The production design by Rob Harris -- which is so vital to any period film -- is excellent. And in only his second outing as a director of photography, Nic Morris has created hauntingly beautifully images, using candlelight and firelight to their very best romantic advantage.

Sophie Marceau readies for U.S. stardom

Giving Sophie a shot at stardom

Sophie Marceau is still largely unknown in the United States, but she's been a successful actress in France since the age of 13. She's also the winner of a Cesar Award ("Most Promising Newcomer" for "La Boum II"), which is the French equivalent of an Academy Award.

The British Dillane is also largely unknown in the United States, and like Marceau he co-starred with Mel Gibson in a previous film. In his case, he played Horatio opposite Gibson's "Hamlet" in Franco Zeffirelli's film of that Shakespearean classic.

If you like good old-fashioned potboilers check out "Firelight." The chemistry between Marceau and Dillane is downright electric and worth the price of admission.

"Firelight" is rated R, mainly due to sexual content, with a running time of 103 minutes.

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