Firelight (1997) is a period romance/drama film written and directed by William Nicholson. It was Nicholson's first, and to date only, film as director. Tagline: Passion has no limits
In 1838, Swiss governess Elisabeth Laurier agrees to bear a child for an anonymous Englishman. In return, the Englishman will pay all of her father's debts. They meet over three nights at a lonely island hotel. Despite their wish for detachment they develop a deeply passionate connection during their lovemaking. Their feelings grow after they converse on the beach and at the hotel.
Elisabeth gives birth to a girl, Louisa, nine months later. As agreed she gives the child away. At first she makes no attempt to connect with her daughter, but keeps a journal of watercolor flowers and plants, adding a page for each holiday and birthday they are apart.
The anonymous Englishman is Charles Godwin, a landowner and struggling sheep farmer. He can barely keep the debtors of his philandering father, Lord Clare, at bay. Charles's wife, Amy Godwin, is paralyzed and catatonic due to a horseriding accident. Amy's sister, Constance, runs the Godwin household. Seven years after Charles's tryst with Elisabeth, Constance hires Elisabeth as his daughter's new governess.
Charles's originally rejects Elisabeth. However, Constance insists that he give the new governess a month in order to find a new situation. Showing Elisabeth the catatonic form of his wife, Charles forces Elisabeth to swear never to reveal to Louisa or anyone the nature of their relationship.
Louisa is spoiled, ignorant, willful, foulmouthed, and unloved by anyone except her father. Though the father and daughter have a loving relationship, Elisabeth is appalled by the lack of control Charles exercises over Louisa. He refuses to use any forms of discipline in her upbringing. Unable to keep Louisa at her lessons, Elisabeth locks the child in the classroom. Charles is furious. He roughly manhandles Elisabeth in an effort to extract the key to the schoolroom. He is shocked when Elisabeth appears to enjoy the experience, merely because he is touching her. Elisabeth promises she will never harm Louisa and whatever she does to her daughter she will do to herself.
Outside of class, Louisa spends all of her excess time in her "Lakehouse", a small belvedere on the estate in the middle of a lake, which can only be reached by boat. Here, Louisa pretends she has a mother. At first, Elisabeth watches clandestinely from the boat docks while Louisa is in the Lakehouse. However, when she finds out that Charles swims there in the morning, she begins to go to watch Charles too, leaving before he can see her.
In the classroom, Elisabeth makes picture cards to teach the seven-year-old how to read. She also tells Louisa a tale about the firelight:
"It's a kind of magic. Firelight makes time stand still. When you put out the lamps and sit in the firelight's glow there aren't any rules any more. You can do what you want, say what you want, be what you want, and when the lamps are lit again, time starts again, and everything you said or did is forgotten. More than forgotten it never happened."
She finds this helps Louisa concentrate on her lessons: knowing there is a time at the end of the day when there are no rules.
Increasingly attracted to Elisabeth, Charles asks her to promise him that they can never be close like they once were. Elisabeth is unable to make such a promise and they renew their physical relationship. The firelight becomes a metaphor for their relationship as well as they only make love in the glow of the firelight in Charles's room.
During a visit from Charles's father, Lord Clare confronts Elisabeth and confirms the intimacy of their relationship. He approves of Charles taking solace with a mistress. Louisa too begins to suspect that Charles and Elisabeth are more than what they seem. After seeing them in bed together early one morning, she tries to seek solace in her Lakehouse, which is frozen over. Louisa falls through the ice, but is rescued by Elisabeth. Struck by Elisabeth's fiercely maternal nature, Louisa investigates Elisabeth's room until she finds the illustrated journal dedicated to Elisabeth's "English Daughter". Louisa confirms that her governess is her mother.
As Lord Clares's mounting debts grow, Charles decides he must sell the estate. Secretly he also wishes to escape his life of duty and self-sacrifice by running away with Elisabeth and Louisa. On a bitterly cold night, he consults his conscience and opens the windows of Amy Godwin's bedchamber. He removes her covers and allows the fire in her room to go out, leaving her to die of exposure. With Amy's death, her sister Constance expects to be Charles choice as a new wife. However, she concedes a dignified defeat when she realizes Charles's depth of feeling toward Elisabeth.
The film ends with the sale of the Godwin's grand estate. Charles, Elisabeth and Louisa leave on a snowy day to begin their new lives together as a family.