Starring: Geraldine Somerville, Andrew Havill, Christopher Malcolm, Elizabeth McGovern, Nicholas Murchie, Malcolm Sinclair, and Janet McTeer
Release Date: May 12th, 2007
There was a time when two women were Daphne Du Maurier's life entire. Ellen Doubleday was the wife of Daphne's American Publisher, Nelson Doubleday, and Gertrude Lawrence was an actress with whom Daphne sated her unrequited love of Ellen. The news of the death of Gertrude leads to Daphne baring her soul in writing to Ellen, because Ellen was the beginning. They met on a transatlantic crossing. Daphne was coming to America to stay with the Doubledays to defend herself in court against accusations of plagiarism stemming from her most famous book, Rebecca. Ellen wafted into her cabin with her arms laden with presents and from that moment on the trial was nothing but a nuisance to Daphne who liked to do nothing better than bask in the presence of Ellen. Ellen is aware of Daphne's growing infatuation and confides to her that she doesn't judge her, she just can't love her in the way she desires. Daphne returns to England and does what she does best, control her emotions in her work. She writes a play, September Tide, wherein the character of the mother-in-law is Ellen and Daphne's avatar is the son-in-law. In a twist of fate the mother-in-law is played by Gertrude Lawrence, whom Daphne met at a party of Ellen's. Soon Gertrude and Daphne begin an affair, much as Gertrude and Daphne's father Gerald did years earlier. Yet Gertrude isn't Ellen and Ellen will forever be between them.
When I first read Rebecca I knew that it would forever be one of my favorite books. So much so that I actually stole my mom's copy from her collection of Franklin Mysteries despite being only about thirteen and not getting the full impact of the book. One of the first things I remember reading when looking into the life of the author of this classic was that this female writer shared a lover with her father. Right there I knew there was a story that needed telling. It might be a weird story, it might be a disturbing story, but the more I read about Daphne's relationship with her father, the famous actor Gerald Du Maurier, the more I needed to know. And I needed to know this from someone who wasn't Daphne. Daphne had a habit of censoring herself. Just read her autobiography, Myself When Young, and you'll see what I'm saying. She just tells her story in a very flat and conventional way. Her life could have been the life of any of her contemporaries. There was no plumbing of her depths, no hints of what she was so artfully and carefully concealing. Therefore when I first read about Daphne in some catalog I got in the mail I was excited to see that there was a film out there finally dealing with the complexity of Daphne Du Maurier. Her sexuality, her relationships, everything she tried to keep hidden. I wanted in. I wanted to know her better.
Perhaps I had too many expectations of a short movie made for television. Because all I got was surface. There was no complexity. If anything Daphne conflates and condenses until there's almost no story to tell. I can't help but think of the adaptations of Sarah Waters's work, who is herself a big fan of Du Maurier, there risks were taken, here... here is a movie that won't offend the sensibilities of the after church crowd gathering around to watch PBS. Because nothing is explained, nothing really happens. Daphne is a confusing mess of repressed emotions and stilted acting. It felt of another time. As in it felt like a movie made post Hayes Code, but only just. The film stock and direction made Daphne look and feel like a BBC adaptation from the early 70s. But not a good one like Upstairs, Downstairs, one of those ones you saw once and never wanted to see again and have since expunged from your memory. In fact I would go so far as to say that this isn't so much acted as a "historical dramatization" akin to the historical reenactments on the History Channel that are interposed between interviews with scholars. Only those are better acted.
In fact, if Daphne had gone all American Horror Story: Roanoke on us perhaps this would have worked. There is just SO MUCH that is glossed over and omitted, and this coming from someone who has only a passing knowledge, that this movie NEEDED those scholars interjecting and explaining what is happening in Daphne's life and mindset in order to grasp what is going on. Someone who is not at all familiar with Du Maurier would be totally at sea. For example the plagiarism lawsuit was just brushed aside for long awkward glances at Ellen Doubleday. Whereas the countless claims and sole lawsuit against Du Maurier for plagiarizing Rebecca could have alone made an interesting movie, instead of a few quick snapshots that brought her into the orbit of Ellen. Sure a successful book will bring the kooks out of the woodwork, but there is a possibility that Rebecca wasn't all Du Maurier's making... see, I'm already hooked right there, now I want that movie as well! But this movie was never about clarity. Daphne's complex relationship to her father is basically reduced to a not very witty line delivered by Noel Coward.
This here is the fatal flaw. Here is a movie about Daphne Du Maurier that never once goes into the depths of her psyche. Never once goes into the whole creepy control her father tried to exert over her with his countless laments that he wished Daphne had been a boy or the whole THEY SHARED A LOVER. Here she's portrayed as butch, the word "lesbian" literally shan't be uttered, if there has to be a mention of her proclivities, just call it "Venetian" as the unexplained ergot of her family demands. This simplification discounts so much of how Du Maurier viewed herself. Most likely due to the roles her father made her fit she isn't able to be simply called bisexual. She quite literally had a split within her, I'm not saying a split personality, but it could almost be called such. She viewed her creative drive as masculine and home life as feminine. Her creative drive was tied into her passion and therefore her romances with both Ellen and Geraldine, why else does she keep referring to herself as a young boy? And yes, that is never explained within Daphne. These issues needed to be handled with care and insight, not just dressing her up in plus fours and having her walk around the countryside!
This movie was such a missed opportunity that it just, ugh. I just don't want to think about what it could have been. But the true horror is that this movie was brilliantly cast. I mean seriously, you have some of the TOP actresses in British Drama and the directing and writing reduced them to this? Cora Crawley! That doyenne of Downton! Lily Potter! Harry Potter's freakin' mother reduced to this! But what really drives me batty is Janet McTeer. I've always admired her, from bumping people off on Marple to getting the sorcery going in The White Queen to taking on that most famous of mothers, Mrs. Dashwood, she's always been good. But this past February I got to see a broadcast of the National Theatre's live production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses which she stared in with Dominic West and holy shit people, if she doesn't win every award available to her for this it is a crime against humanity. The depth, the complexity, the humanity. I was moved more by that production and her acting than anything else in recent years. To know that this movie had access to that talent and then didn't utilize it? It is yet another crime against humanity.
Friday, December 2, 2016