Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dissecting "Daphne"

Janet McTeer and Geraldine Somerville in a scene from Daphne

Last year, when the BBC announced plans to mark the centenary of Daphne du Maurier's birth by unveiling a new telefilm about her life, the dorkier among us grew excited. The film would take its basis from Margaret Forster's authorized biography of the writer, which meant du Maurier's bisexuality wouldn't be glossed over. In fact, Forster's revelations about du Maurier's affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence and her unrequited love for Ellen Doubleday would form the basis of the movie.

Could Daphne be the next Portrait of a Marriage, we wondered? It had been 17 years since that groundbreaking BBC miniseries about Vita Sackville-West's turbulent affair with Violet Trefusis first aired, and it remained unsurpassed in both daring and quality. Word that Janet McTeer, who starred as Sackville-West in Portrait, would play Lawrence in Daphne only added to the anticipation. Last week, a year after it premiered in the UK, Daphne was released on DVD in the United States by BBC Warner. Was it worth the wait?

As it turns out, Daphne is no Portrait of a Marriage. It isn't even Portrait of a Half-Baked Extramarital Affair. If you had to describe it as a portrait of anything, the word disappointment would come to mind. The problem isn't the apparently non-existent budget (though you'll notice how few sets are used and how rickety-looking and sparsely decorated they are), or even the uninspired direction by Clare Beavan. The problem is the screenplay (credited to Amy Jenkins), which is so structurally unsound that it's a wonder the principal actors made it through entire scenes without being struck by falling debris.

Daphne is a mess from its choppy opening moments, which rather turgidly attempt to establish its heroine's inner turmoil while setting the framework for the extended flashbacks that contain the bulk of the story. The year is 1952, and Daphne du Maurier (who is played by Geraldine Somerville; if you're a Harry Potter fanatic, you know her as Lily Potter, and if you're a fan of the original Cracker, you know her as the sharp-tongued Penhaligon) is standing in the rain outside the sprawling Cornwall estate she shares with her husband, Tommy, and their children, waiting for the postman. He brings her a letter that causes her obvious distress; while this is going on, Tommy is inside leafing through private photographs that show his wife in bed with a woman we'll eventually recognize as Gertrude Lawrence. His expression is one of slight surprise, with a touch of, "Well, it could be worse. She could've posted them on MySpace."

In the first of many essentially pointless scenes, Daphne enters the room to announce "She's dead," before heading back outside, into the storm. She cries as she stands at the edge of a cliff, watching the waves crash below her. Curiously, she does this only long enough for the title of the film to appear over the water. Then it's off to her writing shack, where she starts to compose a lengthy letter, the contents of which she'll share via voice-over for the next 90 minutes or so. She reminisces about a period of her life that started seven years earlier, when Tommy returned from the war. Their awkward, kiss-free reunion is cut short by news that Daphne is being sued for plagiarism in the United States. She heads for New York without Tommy, and along the way is greeted by Ellen Doubleday (Elizabeth McGovern), the wife of her American publisher, Nelson. (Who, I might add, is played by Christopher Malcolm, also known as Justin on Absolutely Fabulous. Sadly, Bo and Marshall don't make an appearance.)

Daphne, who has a tendency to dress like she's about to go fox hunting (though all she ever seems to do is brood and write and write and brood) and will spend a great deal of the movie stomping around like a 12-year-old boy with mud on his boots, is immediately smitten with Ellen. These stirrings of attraction should ostensibly quicken a viewer's pulse, but since Daphne's lesbian leanings have already been broadly hinted at by her indifference to Tommy and a variety of silly lines in the script (newsreel footage of the bestselling author proclaims her a happy wife and "a keen archer too," and poor Tommy practically apologizes for coming home with the unfortunate line "Darling, I hope it's not a queer anti-climax for you"), they feel more perfunctory than anything else.

It doesn't help that the heterosexual Ellen is rather shamelessly written as sexually ambiguous at first, the better to interest an increasingly bored audience. In the movie's only genuine howler moment (it could have used a few more), the women bond over tea and crumpets at Ellen's Long Island mansion, where Daphne boldly recounts the "kind of fatal attraction" she experienced with a teacher at her French finishing school. ("It gave the most extraordinary thrill.") As dangerous music swells, Ellen smiles through all the smoke she's exhaling and, glancing at Daphne's crumpet, purrs, "Say, that butter is melting. Better suck your fingers." How McGovern managed to keep a straight face during that scene I couldn't tell you, but then she did manage to make it all the way through the Steve Guttenberg epic The Bedroom Window without laughing hysterically.

Kissing your straight BFF rarely ends well, unless she's really drunk.

The flirtatiousness between Daphne and Ellen only lasts for a scene or two, but Daphne is already hooked. Her plagiarism trial brings her suffering to the surface, and she returns from a long day on the stand to tell Ellen: "It's so utterly degrading. It's obscene. I have to answer questions... Don't they understand that these things are private?" (You might want to keep a bottle of aspirin handy while watching Daphne; you're hit over the head like that a lot.) After prevailing in court, she meets Noel Coward at a celebratory soirée thrown by the Doubledays; Coward then introduces her to Gertrude Lawrence. ("She's one of us," he exclaims. By which he means British, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.) Janet McTeer's presence hers is one of those supporting performances that ends up supporting the entire movie does breathe some life into the proceedings, but Daphne will have to be rejected by Ellen a few more times before romance with anyone else becomes a possibility.

This impossible, never-ending crush on an unattainable woman is as tedious as it sounds, which is to say it's incredibly tedious. By the time Daphne and Gertrude begin to develop a relationship while working on September Tide, a play inspired by du Maurier's feelings for Ellen, you're not quite sure what the wildly talented (and flamboyantly attired) Gertrude sees in her. More to the point, you don't understand why Daphne continues to moon over Ellen. And moon she does, with overheated declarations taken directly from du Maurier's letters to Doubleday. Letters that express sentiments like:
I was a boy of eighteen all over again. Nervous hands and a beating heart, incurably romantic and wanting to throw a cloak before his lady's feet. I wanted to ride out and fight dragons for you.
There was an urgency to those letters, fraught as they were with naked anxiety, that is missing from Daphne. There's no passion to any of it, nothing that gives you a sense of who these women were or why they were important to each other. Daphne du Maurier was a fascinating figure, as any newspaper article could tell you, but she's a one-dimensional sad-sack here. And the character doesn't just bore viewers, if Somerville's somnolent performance is any indication. She wakes up occasionally, especially opposite McTeer (and there's a funny hotel room exchange with McGovern about Daphne's sexual frustration something about picking up a prostitute at the Ponte Vecchio), but mostly she's handed the unenviable task of moping and moping and moping some more. It takes a no-nonsense Gertrude to interrupt Daphne's ongoing pity party, which she does by simply observing: "You're being very ridiculous, you know. You're behaving like a sulky schoolboy who needs his bottom spanked." Now that would have been an interesting movie.

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