FIRST COMES the interrogation. Lovely Elisabeth Laurier (Sophie Marceau) finds herself in what we'll call the Clinton Position, facing off with a pair of unseen inquisitors who bombard her with questions. "Have you ever done anything like this before?" they ask.
This is no grand jury, simply a 19th century job interview. But what a job -- the Swiss miss is auditioning in front of a mysterious Englishman (Stephen Dillane) looking for someone to bear him a child, and fast, for reasons he refuses to specify.
They have a week, tops, to do the deed, and there are quite a few ground rules to be heeded. First and foremost, the happy couple must never be seen together in public. "I have a reputation to protect," the handsome stranger insists.
It's strictly a business transaction (she needs the money to pay off family debts), but one thing leads to another, and in no time the two are standing side by side on the beach, two overdressed silhouettes in the sand.
Still, a deal is a deal, so Elisabeth is shipped back home, and the fun part of "Firelight" is over in its first 15 minutes.
The film is the directorial debut of screenwriter William Nicholson, best-known for the scripts of "Shadowlands" and the most recent feral-child saga, "Nell." Nicholson claims the inspiration for his latest work comes from the great movie romances of the 1940s, but given its period setting and its topical concern with surrogate motherhood, "Firelight" feels more like a lost Bronte novel crossed with an evening's worth of programming from the Lifetime network.
Even the most casual student of "Wuthering Heights" and the screen career of Valerie Bertinelli can predict what's coming next. Years pass, each one marked by a page of insipid, sub-Hallmark text in Elisabeth's scrapbook, which she has helpfully titled something like "My English Baby," presumably to distinguish it from similar volumes memorializing her French baby, her Japanese baby and her melancholy baby.
"I don't forget you," the surrogate mother murmurs in freshly broken English after the last of these entries, and she resolves to check up on her child. Conveniently enough, the position of governess has just opened up at the gloomy country estate where mystery man Charles Goodwin and his daughter, Louisa, live.
That's not such a remarkable coincidence, given the number of governesses Louisa (Dominique Belcourt) has been through. Spend a little time with her yourself, and you'll understand why; the girl is a spoiled brat, thanks largely to Dad's anything-goes philosophy of child-rearing.
Elisabeth will, of course, change all that, with a repertoire of innovative teaching techniques lifted from "The Miracle Worker." Charles is none too pleased to see her back in his life, and would fire her on the spot if it weren't for those darned 19th century British labor laws, which prevent estate owners from terminating governesses without a month's notice.
Needless to say, that month passes quickly, filled with colorful yet messy reading lessons for Louisa, daily nude swimming for Charles, and a visit from the obligatory American sheep farmer (Kevin Anderson), who finds himself quite smitten with Elisabeth.
Meanwhile, Charles' wife lies motionless and silent in her bed, a tragic victim of that famous 19th century neurological disorder that leaves the spouses of leading men comatose yet still breathing after riding accidents. She's too out of it to be much of a companion, but too alive to simply write off. Thus the need for Elisabeth's child-birthing services, to say nothing of Charles' burning desires.
The plot doesn't exactly thicken, it just sort of simmers for an hour or so and then congeals. Nicholson throws in a number of metaphors so obvious that they seem directly lifted from some bad high school literature class lecture on the film, and then repeats them until everyone in the audience gets an A.
Take that firelight in the title, for instance: It's not just a period lighting device for the tasteful sex scenes, it's also a symbol for the power of imagination to free us from social and personal limitations. "In the firelight, you do what you want, say what you want, be what you want. When the lamps are lit again, time starts again, and everything you said or did is forgotten."
That's Elisabeth coaxing Louisa into loosening up a bit on the brat act, but just in case we don't get the connection to her own romance with Charles, she repeats the entire speech to him half an hour later, followed by some more tasteful coupling.
In fact, the whole thing is quite tasteful, all soft-focus and yellow-hued and scored to the lush music of Christopher Gunning. And there's not a speck of suspense, given the predictability of the plot and the low stakes involved. Lonely guy plus comatose wife plus attention-starved daughter plus foxy governess/surrogate: You do the math.
Of course, issues like class and propriety and family tradition are supposed to act as the usual obstacles here, but everyone in the vicinity seems to really hit it off with the new girl in town, so the only thing standing between Elisabeth and Charles is . . . Charles. Movies being movies, everything is resolved in the tidiest way imaginable, culminating in the most extraordinarily mature pronouncement ever uttered by a 7-year-old.
With all the right people tastefully huddled in a rowboat, and all the wrong people tastefully out of commission, the story draws to a close. Tune in next week, when Lifetime brings you William Makepeace Thackeray's timeless tale of star-crossed lovers caught in a web of sexual harassment, artificial insemination and other complaints of the modern age.
Rating: ** 1/2
Period romance about a surrogate mother who wants to reclaim the baby she sold to a dashing landowner.
Starring Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane. Rated R, opening today in the North Park Theater.