Last night Judge Kristin Munson dreamt she went to Manderley again. She knew she shouldn't have eaten those anchovy nachos.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"—Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
I can't even type that famous opening line without reflexively sneering. I've always despised Rebecca as a Gothic romance, where the man's brooding, jerky behavior is supposed to make him dark and sexy. Imagine my surprise when Du Maurier's novel turns out to have more depth than I gave it credit for.
Facts of the Case
Like all good authors, Daphne Du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and "The Birds," had a bit of a secret. You see, Ms. Du Maurier referred to herself as a boy and was smitten by members of both sexes. In between her post-war plagiarism trial and the penning of My Cousin Rachel, Daphne had not one, but two lesbian romances, and it's this seven-year period the movie focuses on.
Daphne desperately wants to be a lurid '40s melodrama. "The secret love life of Daphne Du Maurier," the tagline trumpets, suggesting that it's a lesbian pulp. It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't work with the subject matter.
The very serious story of a woman's struggle with her sexuality is highlighted by excerpts from Du Maurier's letters that are as touching as they are lyrical. "I was a boy of 18 all over again, nervous hands and a beating heart, incurably romantic and wanting to throw a cloak before his lady's feet," a smitten Daphne writes. "I wanted to ride out and fight dragons for you."
Add that voice-over to some rear-projection driving scenes and violins that shriek like elf-bitten banshees whenever something bad happens, and you'll see Daphne's biggest problem. The few truly affecting moments are overwhelmed by the embarrassing cheese. Its poetry is like the prize in an extra sticky Cracker Jack box.
Geraldine Somerville (Cracker) is wonderful as Du Maurier, a woman who is dreadfully bored and eagerly romantic, but the rest of the cast can't figure out whether or not to play it straight. Christopher Malcolm (Absolutely Fabulous) camps it up as Nelson Doubleday, and there are lots of actors doing wide-mouthed impressions of American accents. Poor Janet McTeer (Five Days) is so overly made up she looks like Olympia Dukakis.
I have no complaints about the anamorphic widescreen picture, but the stereo's volume levels needed some more fine-tuning, especially when those damn violins kick in. Daphne also includes a half-hour documentary about Du Maurier's hometown of Cornwall. It's a typical '60s documentary, complete with listless narration and static footage, but the neat thing is the script was written by Du Maurier herself. It's a unique and thoughtful bonus from the BBC archives.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When I wasn't cringing at accents or being assaulted by a strident string section, I actually became interested in Du Maurier's work. The movie shows that several of her plays and books had characters based on herself and the women in her life—sometimes with her as the male lead—and there's some analysis of Rebecca that makes me actually want to brave that bloody opening sentence. The fact that all these things come from Du Maurier's pen and not a squadron of academics only makes her more interesting as a person. Why couldn't I have more of this Daphne and less of the '40s pastiche?
Setting up the telefilm to mirror the style of a Du Maurier adaptation might have worked if everyone was on the same page, but the finished product feels like a gimmick. If the audiovisuals and the extras weren't a factor, Daphne would be DOA.
The cast and crew are guilty of turning a good story into a block of cheese but, since they've already completed their community service by encouraging people to visit the novel and the Hitchcock classic, they're free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "Daphne Du Maurier's Vanishing Cornwall"
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