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Review: Minnie in the driver's seat with 'The Governess'

Web posted on: Wednesday, August 12, 1998 5:46:05 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Last December, I made it extremely clear in my review of "Good Will Hunting" that I'm very taken with Minnie Driver. And I'm about to do it again. I like her low, throaty laugh and unexpectedly gawky, baby-fat enhanced beauty, but the locus of Driver's charisma (for me, anyway) is her eyes.

She looks like she knows something you don't know, and she damn well knows she knows something you don't know. She manages, somehow, to do playful little double takes during otherwise dramatic scenes without even double-taking. A slight crook of her eyebrow says more about what's going on in her head than Demi Moore could accomplish in a 5-minute soliloquy focusing on her stock portfolio.

This self-awareness, and what seems to be a compelling sense of honesty, has recently started to make Driver look a little foolish in the tabloids. She's unguarded enough about herself to go on Howard Stern's TV show and rattle on at length about her brief romance and extended breakup with Matt Damon, and I know a lot of people who are getting close to sick of her because of it.

I even read recently where she said that she hopes the sexy magazine covers she's been posing for over the past few weeks will make Damon kick himself for dumping her. I'm really pulling for her, but, try as I might, I can't think of any reason why we should know that.

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Driver best thing about film

Driver definitely needs to cool her jets with the press, but the headstrong self-containment that she often projects -- on-screen and in "The National Enquirer" -- is the best thing about her otherwise wavering new movie, "The Governess."

First-time director Sandra Goldbacher obviously understands her star's broad-shouldered terms of engagement. Driver, as a Jewish girl in 1840s London who must pretend to be a Gentile in order to make a living after her father suddenly dies, attacks every scene as if it's a full meal. Even when she's fooling around (sexually or otherwise), you know that she means it with every fiber of her being. It's a highly enjoyable performance.

But, alas, the movie itself is rather sloppy. The biggest problem here is that the screenplay can't seem to make up its mind what the story is really about. Driver is Rosina Da Silva, a young woman growing up in a well-heeled Jewish family. The opening scenes, during which the loving father suddenly dies and leaves his wife and daughters penniless, feature references to anti-Semitism that are so overtly stated, you immediately figure that that'll be the main topic.

It is, at first (and then, again, near the end), but when Rosina changes her name to the more "respectable" (i.e. non-Jewish) Mary Blackchurch, and leaves home to serve as a governess for a rich family living on a secluded Scottish isle, things take off in an entirely different direction.

Dried-up mistress, angry child

The lady of the house, a dried up, unemotional type named Mrs. Cavendish, is played by Harriet Walter. Mrs. Cavendish spends most of her day lying on the sofa downstairs, and it's a good thing, too, because Mary hates the snooty, empty-headed old bag.

Unfortunately, Mary also has very little reason to enjoy the company of Clementina (Florence Hoath), the little girl she's been hired to take care of while Mrs. Cavendish loafs around getting no joy out of life. Clementina instantly dislikes Mary, and proves it by doing things like leaving dead mice under the governess' covers when she's about to go to bed. In my opinion, that sort of thing is bound to happen when you name a perfectly healthy child "Clementina."

Mary eventually finds release, in more ways than one, when she strikes up a friendship with Mr. Cavendish ("The Full Monty"'s Tom Wilkinson). Cavendish isn't so nuts about his wife, either, so he stays locked away in a laboratory, perfecting a new process that we 20th-century sophisticates now recognize to be basic photography. Mary shows an almost ridiculous amount of insight towards the form by immediately suggesting that people, rather than inanimate objects, could be photographed in order to get at their inner beings ... or something like that.

I can't remember the exact wording, but it seemed pretty heady when you consider that Cavendish doesn't even have a name for what he's doing yet, and is approaching it as a purely scientific experiment. Mary also deftly pulls an Alexander Graham Bell by accidentally discovering that a salt solution will make the paper Cavendish is using permanently retain the photographed image. She and Cavendish then start taking photos together, which leads to kissing, which leads to secretive sex.

Thus ends the photography portion of our program.

Son complicates affairs

Now a son (played by Jonathon Rhys Meyers) gets kicked out of college and shows up at the house. During the movie, I couldn't help thinking that Meyers' androgynous looks gave him the veneer of an early-'70s rock star. Then, when I got home and started doing some research on the movie, I discovered that he'll be appearing in Todd Haynes' soon-to-be released glam-rock exposé, "Velvet Goldmine."

I've really been looking forward to that one, but I hope Haynes gives Meyers more to do than Goldbacher does in "The Governess." The son doesn't know anything about his father's dalliance with Mary, so the two men end up chasing her at the same time. Or trying to get away from her, in the father's case.

There's lots of crying and carrying on by Driver at this point, but the movie starts to repeat itself endlessly. After the two false starts concerning anti-Semitism and photography, it just turns into your basic, overheated bodice-ripper. The only difference is that Driver takes the bodice off all by herself, rather than having someone yank on it.

I didn't mind this one little bit. If that's the kind of thing I'm looking for, though, I can just pick up one of those glossies that Driver hopes will soon be carrying Damon to the brink of insanity. The movie shouldn't have settled for so little when Driver has so much more to offer than that.

Minnie bares her breasts and bottom a couple of times during "The Governess," and there're also a few surprising shots of full-frontal male nudity. At least it's equal opportunity. 114 minutes. Rated R.

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