misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Daphne [DuMaurier]: the movie out of letters, journals & MForster's biography/Wild Target too

Dear friends and readers,

I write to recommend the really fine movie, Daphne, as an intelligent moving evocation of Daphne DuMaurier's character, inner life of her books, mores, life and Cornwall.  

Geraldine Somerville as Daphne DuMaurier, retired to her hut on her estate to write

Based on Margaret Forster's excellent literary biography and DuMaurier's letters/ournals as turned into a screenplay by Amy Jenkins, produced and directed by Clare Beavan, this is one of those BBC 2009 films intended to be haunting,  and is beautifully acted by Geraldine Somerville as Daphne (she played Emily in the 1999 mini-series Aristocrats), Janet McTeer as Gertrude Lawrence, Elizabeth McGovern as Ellen Doubleday, Malcolm Sinclair as Noel Coward, Christopher Malcolm as Nelson Doubleday, and Andrew Haville as Tommy Browning (Daphne's husband).

What's good about it:  it centers on a slice of Daphne's life organized around the trial she had to endure when accused of plagiarizing Blind Opinions for Rebecca.  The experience is deeply troubling:

The story leads up to this, the prosecution provides one of the movies' crisis: she is led to go to NYC and meet and stay at length with Ellen Doubleday whom she falls in love with:

Ellen Doubleday (Elizabeth McGovern)

Daphne's vindication is intertwined with another relationship that emerges from her New York time:  at a party she meets Gertrude Lawrence who turns her off:

Noel Coward (Malcolm Sinclair) introducing Gertrude Lawrence (Janet McTeer)  to Daphne

The false accusation is presented as a false way of seeing DuMaurier's work, all wrong.

The adequate way of understanding DuMaurier's books slowly emerges from the story:  as in Margaret Forster's biography, the idea is that Daphne identified as a young boy in her relationships with people, and while she appeared to be all repressed and "buttoned up" in self-presentation, there was a strong free boyish spirit wanting to find a strong woman to be with -- to have sex with.   

The movie's structure is one familiar from women's works: it's circular. It opens with Daphne opening a letter which tells her someone is dead; she stands in front of Menabilly; she goes to her room to find her husband, Tommy, looking at photographs of her with someone, and she flees to the landscape

then the movie dissolves into 7 years earlier.  We move from Tommy coming home from war and the two of them not being able quite to re-create an older relationship. She has written her most famous novel, Rebecca already and is know as the novelist of this novel.  This is irritating to her. Her publisher, a crass coarse but good-natured man, Doubleday calls about this prosecution and she's off to New York.

We see the reality of Ellen Doubleday's life behind a facade of sheer wealth. (One problem is the implication that money is not that important in the way of so many films).  Her husband is a sort of bully to whom she must cater, and a very heavy drinker. Basically this relationship never gets anywhere and is deeply frustrating to Daphne because Ellen will not go to bed with her, Ellen insists she is heterosexual. This means they can get only so close for physical life counts.

Ellen Doubleday (Elizabeth McGovern) protesting Daphne's possessiveness and desire for a physical relationship

A counterpoint is at home she has no satisfactory physical life with her husband.  Another problem with the film:  Tommy is presented as  a weakling.

Browning, Daphe's husband (Andrew Haville), just returned from the war

In life Browning was not a total weakling who was dependent in the way he is presented of the film. In the film we never see him at his job (he had one in military diplomacy). We only see him (and Doubleday too) playing with children.  Why some women's films have to emasculate and infantilize men I don't know.  It makes the film skew up the realities of what women must deal with. As I recall Browning had affairs too (with women).

The central character after Daphne emerges slowly too:  McTeer as Gertrude Lawrence. At first she seems to Daphne vulgar, superficial, faux-glamorous.  She is hired to play in Daphne's play and Daphne hates the way she acts.  Gradually she comes to accept, like and finally love Gertrude; they enjoy life together:

and they do have a physical and emotional affair where they break out of their constricting lives and are very happy together.  Lovely scenes of them.  McTeer is brilliant in this complicated role of stubbornly anti-intellectual playgirl overdressed (very gaudy continually, often grossly sexy in awful clothes) whose tragedy at the close of the film is both Daphne and Ellen's loss.

A subplot is Daphne's writing block.  After she comes home from the prosecution, we see her in her hut but not able to write anything. 

This is inconsistent for she seems to be producing plays. But no novel.  Gertrude in conversation is the first one to ackowledge Forster's theory: we see as Daphne watches Gertrude play in the play, Gertrude turn into Ellen and we realize the young man of the play is Daphne,

but what this means emerges explicitly gradually and only in Florida where she talks so openly with Gertrude. There we see her talk of no relationship with her mother and her idealization of her father -- her book on him (superb) is brought up early on in the film. At the close of the film after Ellen rejects Daphne's overtures for a last time (denying she is repressed, saying she is just "not that way'), Daphne's writing block breaks and she writes My Cousin Rachel.  We are to see DuMaurier's Rachel is Ellen and Daphne, the murderous narrator.

It reminded me of Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic's Miss Austen Regrets in the way it used letters for a story.  Yes both film do make love the big motivation for writing the way biopics seem bound to do. It does simplify and omit.  Sadly the comparison brings out the maudling and much greater romanticizing tendencies of the Austen biopic. In fact DuMaurier is treated with more respect as an artist wanting to create a work, not someone writing out of love romance (which many have however mistakenly taken Miss Austen Regrets to be).

The worst motif is the presentation of Daphne's relationship with her children. She seems to have no conflicts there to speak of; they are innocent too.  Often I've seen this:  the centrality of children to women's lives as real conflict and problems is erased. Either the woman is all sacrifice or she avoids them -- here we have a woman who seems able to avoid her children when she wants (a nanny and her husband take care of them) and it does no harm.  Their schooling and growing up is just no problem to her either.  We hear of no other books, no other motives for writing -- only like Miss Austen Regrets the DVD just include a short which has nother motive: in this case "DuMaurier's Cornwall." She wrote like Graham out of responsiveness to the seascape country world of Cornwall.

Two women (here Gertrude and Daphne) walking together seen from the back and afar -- a central motif of womens' films

It is worth buying the DVD to have the half-hour program of Daphne DuMaurier's Cornwall:  based on her book, Vanishing Cornwall, this film is filled with characteristic and suggestive shots of all sorts of places in Cornwall,

buildings, seascapes and manages through meditation to take us from the 5th century Arthurian period through the early middle ages, to the 18th century and 20th: tin, mining, wild church stories (tormented solitary people), the towns, some of the history, the geography. It's useful for understanding Poldark's Cornwall  -- and Cornish gothic too.

Both films, Daphne, the fiction, and this DuMaurier's Cornwall use Wagnerian music, soaring Tristan and Isolda arias at moments of high romance or thought.

Why doesn't it totally succeed. The pace goes too slow and some of the music intended to make us surge with tears, is overdone, played too slow and the scene they are placed against (often landscapes or meditative shots of principles) feel contrived.  The use of 1940s music wherever possible doesn't work. The use of newsreels of the time, actual photos of DuMaurier with her children walking together, are interspersed with the modern actors dressed up in 40s outfits and filmed in black and white to look like news is intended to provide the setting's story but they don't go with the super-glamorous colors of the modern sets and costumes, and neither with the big band music in the background. Sequences are shot too sentimentally somehow and contrivances of technologies too apparent

But as I hope others who read this can see, this is an absorbing women's film, a genuine memoirs/slice of life by means of film of Daphne DuMaurier, a film about the sources of creativity.  It's a TV film that never made into the movies, but you can get it on Netflix.  The women are so alive in their clothes:

McTeer as Gertrude

Somerville as Daphn


P. S. See also (another film recently seen), on Wild Target: featuring Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Eileen Aitkins, Rupert Grint, screenplay Lucinda Coxon, director Jonathan Glint, a French farce anglicized: as Izzy says, in the last moments you see this is a remark of one of the French entertainments (she and I enjoy a lot0, which accounts for its (to Anglo norms) wackiness which is yet targeted somehow at the modern world; also it's a funny film if you can get yourself to laugh at people murdered at the drop of a hat (the film means you to flinch, gulp and move on).
Tags: 20th century, costume drama, female archetypes, women's art, women's memoirs

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