It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Governess” could be an illustration of the ideas in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, in which she marvels at how necessary it is for men to have women to feel superior to. The film tells the story of an educated, spirited Jewish girl from London who, in the 1840s, finds work as a governess on a remote Scottish island to support her family. She enters a household where she is clearly the intellectual equal of the father, and that is more than he can take--although he gives it a good try.
Minnie Driver, grave and thoughtful between moments of high spirits and passion, plays Rosina, who grew up in a Sephardic Jewish community in London. Her family life is richly cultured, but almost entirely cut off from the gentile world around her, and anti-Semitism is a fact of life. When her father dies, she hopes to help her mother and sister, but there are few professions open to her; it was a truism much beloved of Victorian novelists that a single woman in her position had three choices: marriage, domestic service, or prostitution.
She takes the middle choice, and, to sidestep discrimination, renames herself Mary Blackchurch, a Protestant whose part-Italian ancestry explains her olive skin. She is hired by the Cavendish family of Scotland as a governess for their unpleasant little girl Clementina. The father (Tom Wilkinson) is a man obsessed with the new science of photography, and spends long hours in his studio and darkroom, as indeed anyone married to his ignorant and controlling wife (Harriet Walter) would have great inspiration to do. There is also a teenage boy, Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who falls instantly into lust for “Mary,” perhaps the first attractive girl he has seen.
The governess is fascinated by Cavendish's photography--both the artistic side and the technical problem of fixing images so they do not fade. She spends long hours in his company, and they are drawn together, she by a healthy interest in a smart and virile man, he struggling with the mossy ropes of Protestant guilt. Photography is the instrument of their mutual seduction; she insists on posing for him, her image on the negative a way of forcing him to see her as a woman and not just a servant.