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Judaism, Infidelity, and the Development of Photography

Review of The Governess, a film by Sandra Goldbacher, starring Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Harriet Walter, Florence Hoath, Bruce Myers and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

With our country focused on the disastrous results of our president's affair with a young intern, a new film portrays an adulterous affair from the point of view of the mistress.

The film, The Governess, is ostensibly about a devout, wholesome, young Orthodox Jewish woman in 1840s London who is forced to find a way to support her formerly well-to-do family when her father dies suddenly, leaving them penniless.

Rather than marry a wealthy man whom she finds repulsive, Rosina, delightfully played by Minnie Driver (recently seen in the Oscar-winning Matt Damon/Ben Affleck/Robin Williams hit Good Will Hunting), opts to seek employment as a governess, and to hide her Jewish identity while doing so.

Rosina accepts a job on a remote Scottish island, where most of the film is set. There she cares for a spoiled young girl (Florence Hoath), whom she wins over. Gradually, Rosina falls in love with her employer (played by Tom Wilkinson, the foreman-turned stripper in The Full Monty), a scientist whose wife doesn't understand him.

In addition to the nuanced, fine acting and stunning cinematography--the movie was filmed on the Isle of Arran in Scotland by Ashley Rowe, who also did cinematography for A Man of No Importance; Sister, My Sister; and Widow's Peak--the film's main strength is its strong female character, Rosina. Reversing the way women are frequently depicted in films, Rosina is adventurous, curious, and sexually assertive. She is the one to initiate the affair with her employer, and she is also the one who freely expands his scientific experiments to explore different photographic techniques. She exudes intelligence and competence, yet seems utterly lacking in any sense of morality. What may be a plus in terms of depicting a freer type of instinctively pre-feminist woman is a negative in terms of Jewish values.

Devoid of any apparent misgivings or remorse over her affair, Rosina also appears to have no compunctions over hiding her Jewish identity and presenting a false self to the world. When her lover feels guilty, she seems not to understand why. No sense is given of how her Judaism or Jewish values influence her life after she initially leaves her home, except for one scene where she celebrates Passover alone in her room. Indeed, a viewer may wonder why the character was presented as Jewish.

Apparently the director, Sandra Goldbacher, made the film partly to explore her own identity: Her father is an Italian Jew and her gentile mother comes from the Isle of Skye. While Rosina's lover is fully and sympathetically portrayed in the film, and many sides of his character are presented, his wife is narrowly and negatively depicted as shallow, selfish, unloving, and cold, with no evidence of redeeming traits.

Interestingly, all three central adult characters are presented as dishonest. In addition to Rosina's deception, her employer, Mr. Cavendish, tries to claim credit for the scientific discoveries made by Rosina, and also tries to keep their affair secret. His wife (played by Harriet Walter), pretends that she pines for a former life in the midst of society, whereas in fact she has always lived on the isolated island. In addition, Rosina's father, who died at the beginning of the film, was on his way to some secret assignation at the time of his death, and in fact apparently had led a secret life outside of the home, one which had left him penniless.

A background theme in the film is the development of photography, which is part of the scientific research done by Rosina and Mr. Cavendish. The shots of them experimenting with photography are intriguing recreations of the way developments in the field actually emerged, and should appeal to anyone with an interest in this form of art. The photography also fit in with the theme of posing and how we see and want to be seen by others.

The film ends with Rosina back in London, working as a photographer. She had left the island in a huff, when her employer broke off their affair. However, she seems happy enough working as a photographer, apparently with some success. In fact, Mr. Cavendish even comes to have his portrait taken, and she coldly complies.

Goldbacher, the writer/director, appears to have valued Rosina for her lack of repression, creativity and adventurous spirit, qualities that the non-Jewish characters certainly lacked. But I left The Governess feeling disturbed at the way Rosina was portrayed--passionate yet amoral, despite being an observant Jew. Although there were several interesting themes in the film, they weren't smoothly woven together. Perhaps in Goldbacher's next film we will see the strong characters she so effectively creates, but combined with a more finished product.


The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach."
Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.

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