Governess is antidote to current crop of Jewish TV shows

WITH all the current shows on British TV about Jews (Two Jews on a Cruise, Strictly Kosher, Friday Night Dinner, Grandma's House, Jewish Mum of the Year, Jews at 10) generating a fuss about whether they're good for us or not, it is timely to consider that oddity - a great British Jewish film.

Arguably the very idea of a good British Jewish film is an oxymoron as there have been so many poor ones (Suzie Gold and The Infidel, to name just two). But there is one that stands out from the rest - Sandra Goldbacher's 1998 film The Governess.

Minnie Driver stars as Rosina da Silva, a strong Sephardi Jewess in Victorian London. She lives a comfortable and wealthy Jewish life in the East End.

Rosina is religiously defined: the opening sound of the film is the recitation of the Shema, accompanied by the image of a tallit.

Rosina presents an alternative model of representation of the Jewess. She is unorthodox, rebellious, experimental, active, liberated, fun, radical, modern, anachronistic, high-spirited, theatrical, independent and cosmopolitan.

Contrary to convention (on two counts), she aspires to be, like her Aunt Sofka, an actress who never married.

Rosina is at the centre of the narrative and she drives the action. As a sign of this, she is a blur of activity in contrast to the stereotypically static female roles in costume drama.

But when her father is murdered, her mother tries to convince her to marry, thus securing the family's financial future.

Rosina refuses and rejects the traditional path, abandoning her dream to become an actress. She takes a job as a governess on Skye in the home of the Cavendish family where she assists the head of the household (Tom Wilkinson) with his photographic experimentation.

Reinventing herself as 'Mary Blackchurch', she removes her distinguishing Jewish hat, clothing and hairstyle and replaces them with monochrome clothes and glasses in order to mimic a gentile identity.

However, Rosina's Jewishness is not entirely suppressed.

Invoking her conversos ancestors - those Jews who were outwardly Christian but remained privately Jewish - Rosina secretly practises her hidden Judaism, holding a seder within the privacy of her bedroom.

In doing so, she wears her father's tallit, the garment of a married Jew, its black and white stripes symbolising her Jewish status in a gentile household.

Rosina presents an alternative model of Jewish sexuality to the mainstream American fare mentioned in previous columns.

Although it does replicate the older stereotype of la belle juive (the beautiful Jewess), she is constructed from the inside, by a British Jewess (Sandra Goldbacher), rather than from the non-Jewish outside.

Rosina's Jewishness is defined in sexual terms. When in synagogue, she gazes at the men below foregrounding her sexual curiosity.

As she leaves, dressed in exotic, Sephardic clothing (including a black fez), she passes in front of a poster for the 'first appearance of Rachel La Grande Tragedienne - Jewess and Jewel of Paris', while simultaneously she is shouted at ('Jew girl') by some prostitutes, one of whom offers her 'lessons' by baring her breasts.

Rosina is certainly a sexual non-conformist. She is willing to kiss her betrothed before marriage and defends her action with a flourish: "Actresses care not for such convention."

When she takes up her position as a governess on Skye, it is her that makes the first moves to seduce her employer Cavendish.

Sex between them is initiated when Rosina says, in the context of a photo session, "I dreamt of a beautiful picture we could make of Salomé."

She proceeds to remove her outer garments but does not undress further; indeed, she covers herself with a white veil, adding, "I have heard it said that the ancient Hebrews used to express love for each other entirely covered."

In this way, Rosina models herself on such exotic Jewesses as Queen Esther and Salomé.

Charles's son Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) also falls for Rosina. But where his father loves her in spite of her Jewishness, Henry does so because of it, for she represents something unobtainable.

Capping it all off, the film is beautifully shot, displaying a rich palette of red and gold in contrast to the washed-out diluted Scottish landscapes.

There are also many allusions to famous paintings. Overall, The Governess is such an unusual film on so many counts that it is definitely a must-see and one of the few British-Jewish films deserving the adjective of excellent.

It certainly serves as a tonic to much of the fare currently on TV.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph