Sandra Goldbacher Goes Back, Moves Forward with "The
by Anthony Kaufman
A period piece with a flare for the modern, Sandra Goldbacher's
impressively photographed "The Governess" is an ambitious first effort.
Riding on the recent wave of new British films to come to the U.S.,
Goldbacher's filmmaking history is not unlike her fellow compatriots.
She went to film school, went through a "usual period of struggling,"
then went on to direct both documentaries, commercials and two short
films for British television, "17" (for Channel 4 and British Screen),
and "Picadilly Circus by Night" (for the British Film Institute). But
it was her original, feature length screenplay, "The Governess," that
set her apart from the pack.
Developed from a fictional diary which Goldbacher wrote, "The Governess"
follows the internal and external life of Rosina Da Silva, a 19th
Century Sephardic Jew, living in London in the 1940's. When her father
dies in a murderous accident, the once wealthy family learns they are in
debt. To support herself, the headstrong Rosina ventures out from the
sheltered haven of her thriving Jewish community and journeys to an
isolated Scottish Isle in the guise of a Protestant governess named Mary
Blackchurch. There she finds not just money to send home, but a burning
desire for the man of the house, Charles Cavendish (Tom Wilkinson), his
early experiments with photography, and the family and culture she left
With the success of her previous work, Goldbacher was able to get Sarah
Curtis on board as a producer and British Screen to help finance the
film. Curtis most recently produced the Judi Dench Oscar-nominee "Mrs.
Brown" and helped Goldbacher bring in other financiers like France's
Pandora Cinema and Sony Pictures Classics which came on before
shooting. Another notable member of the production team is Executive
Producer, Sally Hibbin, a founding member of Parallax Pictures (the
filmmaking cooperative which includes such leading British directors as
Ken Loach and Les Blair.)
But perhaps the biggest financial boost came not from a production
company, but from cover girl "Good Will Hunting" starer, Minnie Driver,
who accepted the part of Rosina early on in the film's evolution. "It
was absolutely crucial that Rosina be played by someone with charisma
and the maturity to hold the film," says producer Curtis, "someone
fiercely independent and an original. Minnie has that combination of
qualities. She's a very strong personality, a real screen presence, and
a brave actress unafraid to tackle big, difficult things." Driver was
Goldbacher's first choice for the role, "She was the only one I
approached with it," she says. One of the reasons Goldbacher wanted
Driver for the lead was, "There's a real modernity about her." She adds,
"But an ability to be vulnerable and lay herself open completely, which
is what I really wanted."
Goldbacher's transition from shorts and documentary work to features
"felt quite natural to me," the writer-director notes. "Making
documentaries you're always getting a performance out of people," she
says. "With a documentary, you're constructing things more, you have to
cajole people." In contrast, her relationship with actors on her
feature film felt less strained. And the large crews she worked with
for commercials prepared her for the extensive feature film staff
backing her on "The Governess." At first meeting, Goldbacher is petite,
soft spoken, (so soft-spoken my tape recorder barely picked up her
voice) and hardly the hearty helmer one thinks of to pull off an
elaborate period film such as "The Governess." But Goldbacher contends
the poetic visuals and lavish settings have "always been my style."
Speaking about the ornate scenes which introduce the viewer to the
subterranean world of the wealthy Sephardic Londoners, she says, "I
wanted that particular section to have as much saturated colors, and to
give her background in the Jewish community a sense of warmth." This
was to counter "the gentile world as Rosina sees it," when she travels
to Scotland, "which is harsh and cold, bleak and disturbing. Hopefully
all the visuals have emotional connections," Goldbacher adds.
Although Goldbacher says she "grew up loving 19th Century novels," she
wanted a period film with a modern touch. Citing Jane Campion's "The
Piano" as inspiration, she and her crew worked hard to set the visuals
and mood apart from the standard costume dramas that audiences are used
to. Ashley Crowe, the D.P., used the film's thematic metaphor of
photographic discovery to help shape the look of the film. "Early
photographs were all taken with soft, natural daylight, so I've tried to
simulate that kind of look and keep true to that style.
Photographically, this film had so much to offer. The light on the Isle
of Arran was spectacular." Crowe continues, "In Cavendish's workroom,
I've tried to simulate the soft, North light early photographers got
with the skylight. A lot of the key interiors are scenes at night, so
we used a lot of candlelight." Goldbacher also notes the use of a
certain architectural lense called a swing shift lense which functions
like a bellows to throw off the angle of light. Production Designer,
Sarah Greenwood sums up, "We wanted it to look like life as it would
have been, a reality that's believable. I think sometimes we have a
sanitized vision of what a period looks like, very quaint, very pretty.
This is not conventional period material where you do a thousand and one
For her next project, Goldbacher will continue to remain in the past
with an adaptation of Emile Zola's classic novel "Nana." When noting
that famous French director Jean Renoir did a version of "Nana,"
Goldbacher replies, "It's actually not very good. It's the only Renior
that wasn't that good." Can Sandra Goldbacher rival Renoir? Judging
from the stylishness of her feature debut, Renoir might just have
something to worry about.