If the Brontë sisters had written Harlequin romances, they might come out as Firelight. In 1838, Charles (Stephen Dillane) secures the services of Elisabeth (Sophie Marceau) as a surrogate mother. He's an English aristocrat desperate for an heir; she's a Swiss-born servant desperate to pay off her father's debts. They meet for three nights at a French seaside hotel, and by the end of their prescribed period of conception, they are, of course, desperately in love.
But, like the proper, rule-abiding people they are, they stick to their bargain. Elisabeth delivers a daughter and receives her payment. She hadn't expected to love this man -- whose real name she never knew -- or to feel the intense pull of her maternal instinct. It takes her seven years, but Elisabeth tracks them down and secures a job as governess to the petulant, spoiled and immensely needy Louisa (Dominique Belcourt).
Screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands), who makes his directorial debut here, has created Firelight in a familiar romantic tradition and litters the path to happiness with obstacles of obligation. Charles manages a country estate so that his feckless father can savor London's high life. He also provides round-the-clock care for his catatonic wife, who, in a creepy touch, Charles uses as a confessor.
Then there's his devoted sister-in-law Constance (Lia Williams), who has run Charles' household for a decade and has expectations for their future. But Nicholson has decided that sheer passion is enough to blow through all barriers, and there's little doubt that a happy ending is in the offing.
What distinguishes Firelight are the subdued but powerful performances -- especially Sophie Marceau -- superb work from cinematographer Nic Morris, who uses color as an emotional indicator, and the inspired choice of locations, particularly the multiple reflective surfaces and weathered marble of the estate's "lake house."
Although he blurs the lines of class, William Nicholson does acknowledge the limited options afforded women at this time, giving Elisabeth an impassioned speech to her daughter in which she states that they are all "prisoners." Nicholson rewards her fire with a particularly lovely cage.