Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review - The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat
Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Matthew Rhys, Eileen Atkins, Anton Lesser, Jodhi May, Phoebe Nicholls, Andrew Scott, Sheridan Smith, Pip Torrens, and Julian Wadham
Release Date: 2012
Rating: ★★★

John Standing has lost his teaching job, Greek being thought archaic when conversational French is far more useful. That night in a bar he is mistaken for another man, a man that looks just like him. They spend the night talking, or as Johnny Spence views it, having a conversation with himself. Come morning Johnny Spence has fled with John Standing's belongings and Johnny's life is thrust on John. He never thought that he could slip so easily into a life of wealth and luxury, yet he seems to be doing just that. John slowly tries to repair the damage that Johnny has wrought to his own family and soon he realizes that he loves them all and wants to stay. But Johnny has other ideas as how to best use this unexpected boon that having a doppelganger gives him.

Now, as you probably know, I am an Anglophile in the extreme. I  long to live in "this scepter'd isle... this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!" During the Jubilee Year I sat on my couch at ungodly hours to watch flotillas and parades. Yet never once did I think, you know what would make a great paring? Daphne Du Maurier and the Queen's coronation. Because they exist in different worlds and never the twain shall meet until someone at itv went, hey, here's a wacky idea, why don't we take Daphne Du Maurier's The Scapegoat and make it for the jubilee! We'll strip out all the nuance of the story and totally ignore the fact that it's set in France and make it about "those who have greatness thrust upon them" therefore drawing a parallel between Queen Elizabeth and John Standing, who both have responsibilities they weren't prepared for foisted on them. Um no. This makes an interesting movie, one that can stand on it's own fine and works better that way because as an adaptation it leaves so much to be desired.

The Britishness that was thrust upon the story changes everything. The setting of the story in France was deliberate on Du Maurier's part. She not only wanted to explore her family's history of glass making in France but she wanted to deal with the issues of what scars are left behind within a country that collaborated with the enemy. The past and the present and the future of her characters all hinges on what was sacrificed because of war. John, living in a world without attachments, doesn't understand that everything in life is about compromises. The compromises we make with our friends, our families, and even our enemies. He stumbles about trying to find this balance between daughter, wife, mother, lover. His struggle and final acceptance is the driving force of the narrative, whereas the film version of John thrives after one or two missteps.

No secrets, just happiness. WTF! Has Charles Sturridge, the writer of this adaptation, ever actually read and understood any Du Maurier? It's ambiguity in the end all the way! What are we to learn about someone who takes up the offered mantle of responsibility and doesn't stumble? Nothing is to be learned! Sure, we can compare him to George VI and how he stepped into the vacuum left by his Nazis loving brother, but that's not what this book is about! There's nothing that gets my goat more then taking a book, and instead of exploring or expanding on one or another theme, they cram the book into what they want it to be instead of what it is. You can see why Du Maurier was always hesitant about anyone adapting her work; they just don't get it.

In fact if you look at the new setup of the plot, it doesn't work. John Standing is fired at the beginning of the movie and therefore has no life to go back to. Whereas the book's John has a life that his duplicate is currently living and destroying. Without a life to go back to why would he even care about leaving? Why would he want to go back to nothing? It doesn't make sense? Though none of the changes make sense because each change so drastically alters the story that it is truly an unstable house of cards. As for the wife's pregnancy... well, without it I just saw that house of cards starting to fall...

Yet what I missed most was that unease that Du Maurier's writing always captures. The oddities of humanity and the inability to define the grey areas of the human psyche. The most obvious example of character shift is in the young daughter, the very French Marie-Noel, being turned into the very benign Mary Lou. Marie-Noel was religiously devote and had visions and mortified her flesh, here we have a girl who has a funeral for a dead fish, a stuffed rabbit that says goodnight, and wants nothing more then to read Charlotte's Web, versus some saintly tract. Ugh, please. This isn't Du Maurier, this is Enid Blyton.

Each character is slowly stripped of what made them unique and interesting till we have these stock characters that could work in any story. The grey areas are gone. Neither John is a saint or a sinner in Du Maurier's eyes, yet this adaptation clearly wants to view the true John Spence the devil of imagination. He has nothing redeeming about himself, nothing worthwhile, he is pure evil. He beats his mistress, he tries to murder his wife, he takes his doppelganger out to the wood shed... he is a stock villain. In Du Maurier's world nothing is this simple, nothing is black and white. Nothing in this adaptation rings true the deeper you dig. Life isn't this simple and that's why Du Maurier's work endures, because it shows us all aspects of humanity, whereas this adaptation is less then a two hour diversion you will soon forget.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review - Daphen Du Maurier's The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1957
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

John has spent yet another holiday in France walking the history that is his passion and his reason for living. As he gets ready to return to England to teach yet another term at school he looks at all the people and wonders how apart he is from them and if his life of no connections is really a failed life. In the crowd he sees one face he didn't expect to see. His own. The two men, John and Jean, strike up a conversation based on their eerie similarities. They are true doppelgangers. The night is spent drinking and talking and come morning Jean is gone with John's identity, leaving the lonely Englishman an encumbered life filled with family and a failing business. Without really knowing what drives him to it John takes on Jean's life. The bachelor now has a pregnant wife, a daughter, a mother, mistresses, and a complicated life. But soon John doesn't want to leave this new life and if Jean were to decide to return, what would happen?

Daphne Du Maurier has always employed doubling and duality in her writing, but never so obviously as in The Scapegoat. Here she openly embraces the trope of people who have switched places. Though in lighter fare it is done willingly or comedically, as in The Prince and the Pauper, The Parent Trap, and Moon Over Parador. Here it is a situation thrust on John, combining the switching with a case of mistaken identity. Though in any other case mistaken identity would be easier to prove if you weren't the doppelganger of the man they think you are. By combining these two plot devices into one Du Maurier is able to delve into the darker aspects of who we are and what would happen if we tried to escape our life by taking up the mantle of someone else's. 

By having the opportunity of becoming someone else, someone known, what would you do? Seeing as Jean is the one who thrust this situation on John, it's pretty clear that he does this just to amuse himself, a humorous what if. But John, John is more complicated. By going along with Jean he is made complicit in this scheme he doesn't want. Yet being put in a situation where the repercussions fall on another's head means that for the first time in his life John is free of responsibility and guilt and is allowed to make mistakes and be taciturn or angry or whomever he chooses to think Jean is.

John's first embracing of the situation is the fact that he can't be held accountable. Du Maurier here is bringing up the darker nature of humans. What would we do if we could get away with it? For some people it would be anything and everything, theft to murder. Putting someone in this situation is testing their mettle. Given a free pass what would you do? It shows the goodness of John that after the initially heady response of being able to say what he really feels that he tries to better the lives of Jean's family. His deepest desires aren't dark and perverted, his deepest desires are to have connections, to have people to care for and love. At the start of his journey he can't come to terms with his driftless life. He wonders what does he do with failure. After spending time in the shoes of Jean he wonders what do you do with love.

John's question has changed, but the search for an answer is still there. That is what it is to be human. To always be questioning and searching. While John spends his time as Jean picturing him as this evil man who viewed the demands of family as the demands of his "captors" life is never this black and white. People aren't just good or evil, they are filled with grey areas. We have spent so much time with John that we see the world through his eyes now but it isn't till the end, that slight shift in perspective that makes us realize, John's point of view isn't the only one. Life is complicated and messy and we are left with questions, but it is never just black and white.

Speaking of someone living in the grey areas, Du Maurier spent most of her life, and a significant amount of her writing, not just dealing with these weighty issues of the nature of man but as an extended therapy session for herself. She viewed herself as two energies, male and female, which understandably makes her obsession with duality make sense. But there is another force that ruled her life and her work, and that is her father, the actor Sir Gerald Du Maurier. The relationship between Jean and his daughter Marie-Noel is a loving, yet odd and at times downright disturbing relationship. The scene where Marie-Noel asks her father to whip her... I defy you to find a more disturbing image then a grown man being asked by a small ten year old to be whipped for her imagined sins.

The question one is left with is how much did Daphne put of herself in her books? Her father was a dynamic and possessive man. They had a love hate relationship and he often wished that Daphne had been a boy, perhaps starting her duality issues. Incest was often hinted at. It is even believed that perhaps they shared a lover, Gertrude Lawrence. Whatever is and isn't true, one thing is certain, the creepy dynamic that they had is shared with Jean and Marie-Noel, further fanning the flames of what was real in Du Maurier's world and what was play acting.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Cat and the Moon and Other Cat Poems by The British Library
Published by: British Library
Publication Date: December 16th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 80 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The Cat and the Moon takes its cue from Jean Burden: “A dog is prose; a cat is a poem.” A magnificently varied anthology, it includes poems featuring cats from Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Walter de la Mare, and many others, celebrating fluffy kittens and mysterious night walkers, tormenters of mice and sleepy fireside friends."

A book about cats release by the British Library? It's a book made for ME!

Hope Rising by Stacy Henrie
Published by: Forever
Publication Date: December 16th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:

In France at the height of World War I, American nurse Evelyn Gray is no stranger to suffering. She's helped save the life of many a soldier, but when she learns her betrothed has been killed, her own heart may be broken beyond repair. Summoning all her strength, Evelyn is determined to carry on-not just for herself and her country, but for her unborn child.

Corporal Joel Campbell dreams of the day the war is over and he can return home and start a family. When a brutal battle injury puts that hope in jeopardy, Joel is lost to despair . . . until he meets Evelyn. Beautiful, compassionate, and in need of help, she makes an unconventional proposal that could save their lives-or ruin them irrevocably. Now, amidst the terror and turmoil of the Western Front, these two lost souls will have to put their faith in love to find the miracle they've been looking for."

OK, yes, I requested to ARC for this because it's so Downtonesque... so perhaps you might see my review come February!

The Devil in Montmartre by Gary Inbinder
Published by: Pegasus
Publication Date: December 16th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"When the mutilated corpse of a beautiful dancer is found in a Montmartre sewer, a nervous public fears that Jack the Ripper has crossed the Channel—but Inspector Achille Lefebvre has his own theories. Amid the hustle and bustle of the Paris 1889 Universal Exposition, workers discover the mutilated corpse of a popular model and Moulin Rouge Can-Can dancer in a Montmartre sewer. Hysterical rumors swirl that Jack the Ripper has crossed the Channel, and Inspector Achille Lefebvre enters the Parisian underworld to track down the brutal killer. His suspects are the artist Toulouse-Lautrec; Jojo, an acrobat at the Circus Fernando, and Sir Henry Collingwood, a mysterious English gynecologist and amateur artist.

Pioneering the as-yet-untried system of fingerprint detection and using cutting edge forensics, including crime scene photography, anthropometry, pathology, laboratory analysis, Achille attempts to separate the innocent from the guilty. But he must work quickly before the “Paris Ripper” strikes again."

OK, first a Jack the Ripper tale, sold there. But more importantly, the Inspector has my last name! So I have to read it because I must be related to this fictional Achille Lefebvre. Thanks to my friend Marie for showing me this book!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Miniseries Review - Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn
Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew McNulty, Sean Harris, Joanne Whalley, Ben Daniels, Shirley Henderson, and Andrew Scarboroug
Release Date: 2014
Rating: ★
To Buy

Mary Yellan's mother has died suddenly and she is forced to go live with her Aunt at Jamaica Inn because she doesn't want to take the offered hand of her childhood sweetheart Ned. Life at the inn is brutish and hard, filled with rough men and dangerous living. Mary has every reason to hate smugglers, as they killed her father, but soon she is one of them, part of a network hidden in plain sight throughout Cornwall. Jamaica Inn is a den of thieves and yet, despite her better judgment, she is falling for one of them, the younger brother of her uncle Joss, Jem Merlyn. The only place she knows safety away from the brutes and horse thieves is at the home of the local vicar, Francis Davey, where he and his sister Hannah offer Mary hope that her uncle will be caught and her and her Aunt Patience can forge a new life together. But no one is as they seem and everyone has some dark secret that haunts their dreams.

Seriously, this miniseries is not my fault. When I said I really wanted Jamaica Inn made into a miniseries after I first read it I didn't mean this! Let's go wreck a ship in broad daylight said no smuggler ever! Daphne Du Maurier is probably rolling in her grave right about now, but I'm sure after the Charles Laughton version she has no expectations at all and is used to disappointment. There is just so much wrong going on I was tempted on re-watching this painful miniseries to just do a Mystery Science Theater 3000 type review, but even that would have been too much effort and after a certain point there are so many major gaffe's that my brain shut down and I just tried to lie back and think of England while occasionally bemoaning the unlikelihood that anyone could get that much mud on their dress ever. Seriously. Was Mary rolling in the pig sty?

What is really grating is that this version obviously tried to keep the overall plot in tact to some degree but that it kept making little changes for no reason that kept adding up and resulted in changing everything. Now, I understand that this is an "adaptation" and that purity of the story is changed for a new medium, but seriously, why randomly make Mary have this long backstory with her father being killed by smuggler's but then have the twist that he was a smuggler!?! What does this add? Mary's mother hiding her illness from her daughter... it takes away Mary caring for her mother and showing what a strong independent young woman she is. In fact a lot of the changes chip away at Mary's independence. Instead of her not caring about love and wanting to return home to have her own farm, enter Ned, her love that was left behind that wanted to make a good wife of her. Ugh.

Why you're at it give Aunt Patience more of a backbone, make Joss less of a physically imposing giant of a man, add some new characters for no reason, change Harry the peddler from a creep and a rapist to a nice doddering smuggler. Oh, and why not take all suspense away and have Mary learn about the smuggling at Jamaica Inn in two seconds flat and have her helping out five minutes later! Then throw Jem in every scene you can, make Davey's housekeeper Hannah into his psycho sister, and on and on and on. Strip away everything little by little and what do you have? Three hours of my life I want back... or, by this point, six!

But nothing can ever beat the bad casting and dialect! The casting of Sean Harris as Joss is a joke. You need someone tall, imposing, like Clive Russell is at 6'6". But that is nothing to Sean Harris's mush mouth. I swear, I don't think he's actually saying real words. There's even a good chance he can't speak given the evidence of this miniseries. He is the worse perpetrator, but not the only one by a long shot! All the mumbling and grumbling of the dialogue led to a fair few complaints to the BBC back in April when this first aired, as in thousands of people called to complain. What the dialogue reminds me of most is that scene in My Fair Lady when Henry Higgins is filling Eliza Doolittle's mouth full of marbles and telling her to speak and enunciate and she can't. Everyone in this miniseries must have had a mouth full of marbles, it's the only explanation. The worst result of this is that the scene where Joss bares his soul and tells Mary that he is a wrecker, instead of coming across as riveting and horrific and sad all at the same time, it comes across as a mumbling drunk in front of a fire like a drunken uncle at the holidays you'd ignore. This direction and acting wouldn't inspire the horror in Mary, it would just be shrugged off as just another rant.

Finally, Mary Yellan herself cannot be exempted from the train wreck, or should I say shipwreck (oh naughty) that this miniseries is. She's supposed to carry the narrative on her shoulders and instead she spends all her time moaning and looking like she's constipated or drugged or both. Perhaps she's on drugs for her constipation? This role is yet another step in the downward trajectory that is the career path of Jessica Brown Finlay. Let's see where she went wrong. Firstly she's on like the most popular television series ever and she quits. Strike one, you don't leave Downton Abbey. Then she goes on to "star" in the cheesy television adaptation of the Kate Mosse book Labyrinth which was abominably boring and didn't even show up in the US till two years after it premiered in England to lackluster reviews. Next she stared as the fair damsel in the box office flop Winter's Tale, which didn't even make back one fifth of what it cost to make it and got an astonishingly low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. I didn't know a movie could get only 13%! Oh, even better, top critics gave in only 10%! And then, oh joy of joys, came Jamaica Inn! Here's a hint. If you're going to leave a big show get something bankable as your followup, like Lily James and Cinderella. It's Disney! Oh, and she didn't have her character killed off so she can come back to Downton Abbey whenever she wants!

But underneath all that mud. Seriously, what's with all the mud!?! This adaptation got a few things right. Mainly they hired Matthew McNulty. A regular face for fans of Bill Gallagher's shows Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise, he is perfectly cast as Jem Merlyn. I defy anyone to make the phrase "come to market" sound sexier then he did. Also the duality of humans and their male and female aspects that Du Maurier wrote extensively about in the book was touched on with Mary crossdressing, which I thought was a nice touch. If only they had stayed true to the spirit of the text and stopped mumbling about things that didn't matter perhaps this would have been watchable. As it is you're better off turning off the volume and just pretending it's a nature documentary with lots of pretty scenery that occasionally muddy people walk through.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review - Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1935
Format: Paperback, 302 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Mary Yellan abides by her mother's dying wish and leaves her farm and life behind and travels north to the Cornish moors. There she expects to meet her Aunt Patience, the bubbly beauty of memory, and her new husband, Joss Merlyn. Yet before she even sets out on her journey she has doubts. Mary thought that her Aunt lived a quiet life in a small town but she is told in a curt letter from Patience that she and her husband now reside at Jamaica Inn where her husband is proprietor. There Mary finds a shell of a woman and a terrifying brute of a man in a run down inn where travellers dare not stop. It isn't long till Mary starts to learn the reasons why Jamaica Inn is given such a wide berth. The wagons in the night. The rowdy men coming in off the moors. Mary starts to dream of a way out of her situation for herself and her aunt, taking what solace she can from wandering the moors. Though soon Mary learns how easy it is for history to repeat itself when she starts to fall for her Uncle's younger brother Jem. But this wrecked life she is living can not sustain itself and something has got to give.

Jamaica Inn and Rebecca are two interesting books to read back to back. At this precise moment in time these are the only books I've read by Daphne Du Maurier so far that aren't comprised of short stories. Besides being the only books by Du Maurier that I've read both Jamaica Inn and Rebecca are re-reads for me. Books can change greatly on a re-read; you see things you missed, you might notice the pacing more, you know the ending, if you can remember it that is, and therefore can pick up on foreshadowing. Your entire experience is different to the first time. What struck me most re-reading these books was that the pacing of Jamaica Inn doesn't lend itself to a re-read as much as Rebecca does. Jamaica Inn's pacing is a headlong rush into the world of smuggling where you briefly come up for air on a rare walk with Mary Yellan over the moors but on the whole the book doesn't let up till the last page.

But knowing what that last page contains makes the rush loose it's impact. You don't have that burning desire to get to the next page and the next. It's like you start running with intent but give up fairly quickly with a stitch in your side realizing it's not really worth the effort. Whereas Rebecca is more of a slow burn. Rebecca does have the constant force pushing you forward but it's more psychological manipulation, more subtle. Rebecca invites you to dwell and absorb the atmosphere, whereas at Jamaica Inn you're just praying you get out alive. Which makes me realize all the more that while I loved Jamaica Inn the first time I read it, it truly is and always will be Rebecca that is Du Maurier's legacy.

Despite not connecting to the story the way I did initially there is so much depth that I hadn't even guessed was there during my first headlong rush through the book that the story was interesting to me in a whole new way. Du Maurier herself figures very much into the themes expressed in Jamaica Inn. All her life she felt as if she had two distinct people within her, the female and the male. While this could just be her own way of coping with her bisexuality, I find it interesting that she uses her work, her writing, which she said came from her male energy, her "boy in a box," to explore these issues which are forefront in Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan is an a-typical girl in that she is willing to do the work of a man and cares not for trifles such as love. This a-typicality is often viewed as masculine by those around her. I don't think I can count the number of times Mary said "if only I were a man" or someone said to Mary "if only you were a man."

What this duality does in Jamaica Inn is not only address that everyone has dual natures fighting each other, but it shines a light on the mores of the time. When Du Maurier wrote this book, over a hundred years after its action takes place, society was still a very male dominated sphere. Mary is masculine because she will not abide by what society thinks she should do. She doesn't want to sit by a fire and be a lady's companion. Mary would rather run a farm on her own and be the mistress of her own fate then fall victim to the conventions of the time. Much like Du Maurier herself who set out to be a popular writer in a male dominated industry. If they had to align themselves with their male half in order to succeed, more power to them. One can only wish we could live in a world where someone could succeed just by the value of their work, but the world is always putting us in boxes, so is it any surprise Du Maurier did it to herself?

The male versus female dynamic isn't the only duality seen in the book. There is also the thin line of repulsion and attraction. Like Darcy struggling in vain with his better judgement, it's a quick turnaround from hate to love. By all reckoning, Joss Merlyn should be a repulsive, horrid man, but there's a magnetism about him, like Mary you are drawn to this brute and fascinated by him. Mary could see why her Aunt fell for him all those years ago. Which is why I think Mary falls for Jem; a purer, untainted version of Joss. Despite seeing in her Aunt what her future might hold, Mary willingly, if begrudgingly, goes off into the sunset (or in this case over the River Tamar) with Jem.

But the most important duality is seen in man versus nature. I'm not talking about man's nature, but the actual air and sky and sea. Mary comes from the south, a place where nature is tamed, but the north, ah, nature isn't tamed. The sea and the marshes are shown to fell men in the blink of an eye. Jamaica Inn on that blasted moor is the last human bastion amongst the howling winds and great tors. Cornwall itself becomes it's own character in the book. Du Maurier is able to so vividly capture the landscape and atmosphere, you can see how Cornwall needed Du Maurier to tell this story and Du Maurier needed Cornwall as her muse. There's a symbiotic relationship that feeds off each other and brings out the best in both through this stunning story of man versus nature, and here I do mean every definition of nature.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tuesday Tomorrow

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: December 9th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The game is once again afoot in this thrilling mystery from the bestselling author of The House of Silk, sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, which explores what really happened when Sherlock Holmes and his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty tumbled to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls.

Internationally bestselling author Anthony Horowitz’s nail-biting new novel plunges us back into the dark and complex world of detective Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty—dubbed the Napoleon of crime” by Holmes—in the aftermath of their fateful struggle at the Reichenbach Falls.

Days after the encounter at the Swiss waterfall, Pinkerton detective agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. Moriarty’s death has left an immediate, poisonous vacuum in the criminal underworld, and there is no shortage of candidates to take his place—including one particularly fiendish criminal mastermind.

Chase and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, a devoted student of Holmes’s methods of investigation and deduction originally introduced by Conan Doyle in “The Sign of Four”, must forge a path through the darkest corners of England’s capital—from the elegant squares of Mayfair to the shadowy wharfs and alleyways of the London Docks—in pursuit of this sinister figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, who is determined to stake his claim as Moriarty’s successor.

A riveting, deeply atmospheric tale of murder and menace from one of the only writers to earn the seal of approval from Conan Doyle’s estate."

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Anthony Horowitz? If not consider this your reminder. Also, the only new Holmes books sanctioned by Doyle's estate... just saying...

Friday, December 5, 2014

Movie Review - Rebecca

Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, Leo G. Carroll, and Alfred Hitchcock
Release Date: 1940
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Maxim de Winter has taken a new bride. After a hasty proposal followed by a hasty marriage in a registrar office in the south of France, the newlyweds are off to England and his great estate of Manderley. The second Mrs. de Winter feels lost and out of place there. She feels as if everything she does is being compared to Maxim's first wife, Rebecca. Rebecca whose initials are strewn all over the stationary, Rebecca whose room is keep as a shrine by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca who could pull off class and wear a black dress and pearls without anyone batting an eyelash. And finally, Rebecca, whose memory sends her new husband into sulks and fits of rage. Will Rebecca be the end of them? 

My entire life I have had a little bit of a Hitchcock obsession. It could be that I'm drawn to great filmmaking with a darker edge, or it could be that I have embraced him because we share the same birthday, either way his films are the pinnacle of what cinema is about for me. For years I went back and forth between Rebecca and Rear Window as to which was my favorite of his films, that was until I saw Vertigo and it can now never be shifted in my heart as his true masterpiece. In recent years I've taken to watching Hitchcock movies on the big screen and only resorting to watching my DVDs if I can't help it.

For some reason Rebecca is never shown in these retrospectives at the various art house cinemas. This means I haven't seen Rebecca in many years now. It was an odd and jarring experience rewatching the movie. I've revisited my other two favorite Hitchcock films so many times that they have changed and grown with me, but Rebecca feels as if it belongs to a different me. I can still see the reasons I loved it back in high school, I can picture myself begging my parents for a copy of the movie poster for my room, and yet... and yet I see the flaws more clearly.

Of course, ideally you shouldn't finish the book, set it down and reach for the remote, that can never end well. And yet I did just that. Yes, despite knowing that this couldn't end well, I did it anyway. All that was wrong jumped out at me with more force then ever before, I wasn't charmed by the old film, I was baffled that I ever saw anything but a bad miniature as Joan Fontaine narrates the opening lines of the book. This isn't to say that the movie is a train wreck, far from it. It just doesn't compare to the depth you get in the book.

The truth is that this is a perfectly cast movie that suffers from not having enough time to do the story justice and not having the technology needed. You can see why they have mistakenly tried to remake it six times, because the movie has the potential but falls short. But all these other wannabes, they don't realize they can never ever match the greatness of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Seriously, Charles Dance as Maxim de Winter? NO! Whomever thought that, just no. They deserve to die with a bolt through the gut, if you know what I mean. In fact if you look at the scenes that are almost directly lifted word for word from the book, I'm thinking particularly of the scene where Maxim confesses to his new bride in the cottage in the cove, it enraptures you. The spark between the characters and the way it's shot, with "Rebecca" rising from the daybed. Some of the best cinema you will ever see.

But it's not just the spark between the leads that makes it perfectly cast. Fontaine has that wonderful bewildered look that she has mastered to perfection, but also she has such a gaucheness that you wonder at times if it's inexperienced acting, but when you get to the end of the movie you realize that it was a purposeful naivety, it's no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar for this role. As for Olivier, he is Maxim. There is no other actor that can ever do this role justice which again makes the flaws that much more obvious. As for Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers? The way she's able to keep that severe yet distanced look in her eyes that goes into crazy overload when she shows off Rebecca's room. I defy you to find someone who could do that as well!

One aspect of the movie that I had the biggest problem with though was something that they really couldn't control and that is that the movie is in black and white. Yes it did come out a year after The Wizard of Oz premiered in glorious Technicolor, but Hitchcock was never swayed by what he could do instead doing what he thought worked with the movie. Why else was Psycho in black and white? He must have thought that color was untried and that black and white adhered to the Gothic nature of the story. But that's what makes the book so unique. It is a Gothic story but there is riotous color in the book. The red flowers being a bloody reminder of Rebecca, the bluebells and the hydranga flowering in the woods and along the drive. There is such colorful life flowing from every page that it jars you to see this bleak world on screen. Yet another reason to space out your reading and your watching of Rebecca.

But hands down, the biggest issue I had was with the music. A lot of people I think don't take music into consideration in films and movies. It's just something there in the background that fuels the mood. Yet if it's done badly it jars discordantly and pulls you out of the moment. I am probably more aware then most people of this because my brother is a music nut and I've spent enough time around him that I am aware of music more often then not. I was overjoyed recently when I was able to successfully "hear" that Grantchester was scored by the same person who does Downton Abbey.

If you really want a shock, go back and watch some of your favorite movies from the 80s and you'll be in for a musical surprise, as your eardrums bleed. Rebecca's music is like a pendulum, either overly cheerful like you're skipping through a woods on a summer morning, or bizarrely ominous. There is no middle ground. The music is very bi-polar in this regard. You can see why later Hitchcock stuck to using composers like Bernard Herrmann, who were able to create memorable music that fit the movie and elevated it to another level. The very least Rebecca could do to improve itself was get a new score.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review - Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1938
Format: Paperback, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate... Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done."

As she looks back on the twists and turns that brought her to Manderley, the second Mrs. de Winter can't help but wonder how her life ended up as it did. She had resigned herself to an existence as a paid companion trailing behind whomever had hired her, the reprehensible Mrs. Van Hoppper being her patron at the time. That all changed when Maxim de Winter entered her life in his fast car. He was in the south of France fleeing the memories of his dead wife Rebecca and the one thing that blotted her out was the young girl who would become his second wife. Yet perhaps their union was foolish, or Maxim's dream to return to Manderley was unwise. Because their life is haunted by the memories of his first wife, Rebecca. The spectre that is hallowed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and is a constant comparative presence for the new wife. Could Rebecca destroy their happiness from beyond the grave? Or will it need a little assistance from Mrs. Danvers?

When I was young my mother subscribed to The Franklin Library Mystery Masterpieces. Each month a new book would arrive and we'd set it in pride of place on our console bookshelf that housed our most prized possessions, this being the eighties it mainly housed records and our record player. The little nine year old that I was loved that each month another volume would come and expand the display on that orangey wood that just glowed with an inner light. Then one day The Franklin Library sent us the biggest box I had ever seen. They were discontinuing the Mystery Masterpieces and they sent us the remaining volumes all at once. At this time we probably had only ten volumes, so forty-two books showed up one day to our great astonishment and delight.

Until this past summer these books have been packed away as space was scare; all but a few choice volumes. But when I was young I loved to spend time reading the spines and looking at the pictures and wondering what the books were about and making up my own stories, especially about The Thirty-Nine Steps, which really disappointed me when I found out what it was really about. When they first arrived I was too young to read most of the titles, and when I was older I was too into movies to bother with books. That all changed. Obviously. But Rebecca, the movie, was like a gateway drug. I adored the film and then I looked on our shelf. There was Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, one of the first books we'd gotten in this series, after the obligatory Agatha Christie volume that is. This particular edition would make it's way into my library and my heart.

Rebecca is that rare book that cries out to be read and re-read over and over again. The opening line that transports you, like a dream, to Manderley. You can get lost in the happy valley among the flowers and never want to return from those magical pages. But I don't think that you truly get the book's greatness without knowing the context of Du Maurier's world, mainly her obsession with the Brontes. This is much in the vein of why people don't realize the genius of Northanger Abbey, which is a parody of the Gothic genre, not "serious" like Austen's other books! Du Maurier's first book, The Loving Spirit, takes it's name from a poem by Emily Bronte. More then twenty years after writing Rebecca her misguided biography on Branwell Bronte was published and forever secured her connection to them. Therefore the echoes of Jane Eyre that haunt Rebecca should not be thought a surprise or the least bit unintentional. Du Maurier was writing a new classic that would pay homage to and reflect Jane Eyre. A Jane Eyre for modern sensibilities, if you will.

Just look at the similarities. The naive young girl ready for love, the misanthropic hero, the crazy wife, the destructive fire. What amazes me is that if you look at just the building blocks of these books they should be eerily similar, yet they aren't. Each book is a classic in it's own right, but the ghost of Jane Eyre isn't the only ghost that Rebecca tackles, after all there is Rebecca herself. While there is that chilling line delivered by Mrs. Danvers "Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?" What we think of as ghosts can take many forms. There are no spectral apparitions here, no things that go bump in the night, but that doesn't mean Rebecca doesn't haunt Manderley.

Rebecca recurs persistently in the consciousness of the second Mrs. de Winter causing her distress and anxiety, but she is also the bosom friend of Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers, more then anyone, works to keep Rebecca alive and in doing so makes her spectre part of the foundation of Manderley itself. This is an interesting conceit on Du Maurier's part, because really, this is a ghost story without a ghost. The memory and emotion left behind is what haunts us, and if anyone could do this, it's Rebecca. As Captain Jack Harkness said on Torchwood, "Human emotion is energy. You can't always see it or hear it, but you can feel it. Ever had deja vu? Felt someone walk over your grave? Ever felt someone behind you in an empty room? Well there was. There always is."

Yet Rebecca isn't the only ghost. There's another person who haunts Manderley, she is always there, ever present, but in the shadow of Rebecca. I am of course talking about the second Mrs. de Winter. She is but mere shadow, a trace, a semblance of a person. She in fact has no name but that which Rebecca had, Mrs. de Winter. This is the most fascinating aspect of the book and many others have discused it's importance, that the heroine has no name. One result of this namlessness is that she is a ghost, a cipher, a way to tell Rebecca's story through new eyes but without complicating the matter by creating a character with backbone.

Of course this is a two edged sword, on the one hand Du Maurier is pushing the second Mrs. de Winter into the background, but on the other hand by creating a blank slate, a character who has no real "character" we are able to put ourselves more easily into her shoes. This literary trick, I mean, really, I want to stand and applaud Du Maurier. By giving use this conduit there are so many ramifications to the narrative. By being one with the second Mrs. de Winter you therefore embrace Maxim, her husband, and therefore not just identify but condone his actions. The genius of Rebecca is that Daphne Du Maurier has made you complicit in murder and you loved every second of it.

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