There were times when making my way through Daphne I wondered if I were watching an earnest, if melodramatic, depiction of author Daphne Du Maurier's conflicted sexual proclivities, or instead had stumbled upon a little known, brilliantly executed Christopher Guest parody done in the style of Douglas Sirk. Widescreen passion, often tamped down by societal norms, with often unintentionally hilarious dialogue was Sirk's calling card, after all, and this 2007 British telefilm has that in spades, though it is so simultaneously over-the-top and understated (in that typical British way) here that I couldn't believe it was not being played for laughs. Evidently Du Maurier's affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence is the stuff of legend, but I didn't know that going in; I only knew Du Maurier was the daughter of legendary theatrical impresario Gerald Du Maurier, and had gone on to write many a bestselling book and short story, probably the best known of which are two works that the redoubtable Alfred Hitchock made into film classics, "Rebecca" and "The Birds."
The film picks up shortly after WWII, when Du Maurier's husband returns home from the battle. She is quickly delivered a telegram announcing someone's death, which sends her into a near suicidal hysteria, from which the flashback that makes up the bulk of the film emerges. If you don't know Du Maurier's personal history (and I, for one, didn't), you might spend the first half of this film thinking her illicit passion is directed at Ellen Doubleday (Elizabeth McGovern), wife of Du Maurier's American publisher, Nelson Doubleday. When Du Maurier is summoned to the United States to defend herself against a bogus plagiarism charge, she meets up with Ellen onboard the trans-Atlantic ocean liner they're both taking, and Du Maurier's infatuation begins, despite several staunchly worded rebuffs by Doubleday.
Enter Gertrude Lawrence, a friend of Doubleday's, relatively late in her life, but at the extreme opposite of both Du Maurier's repressed sexuality and Doubleday's inherent sweetness. Lawrence has spent her life playing things to the rafters, and a little thing like being offstage in a one-on-one conversation doesn't alter her style one whit. It turns out that Lawrence had been one of Gerald Du Maurier's many mistresses, which initially repels Daphne, but which then seems to inexorably draw her in, as a moth to a flame. Freudians will probably have a field day charting the transference of Daphne's "true love" for Ellen, which is unrequited, to Gertrude, a "silly bitch" in Daphne's own words. (It's interesting, if not particularly surprising, to note that Lawrence's own biopic, Star!, with Julie Andrews, doesn't deal with this episode at all).
Daphne is maddening because there is a whale of a lot to like about it. Amy Jenkins' teleplay is more often than not very literate and avoids the obvious (though when she introduces a famous character by having Nelson Doubleday exude, "Mr. Coward--Mr. Noel Coward," as if we wouldn't know, it's laugh out loud funny). The performances are uniformly winning, from Geraldine Somerville's subdued Du Maurier to McGovern's patrician Doubleday to especially Janet McTeer's raucous Lawrence. But it's just so dripping in bathos and post-modern irony that it often shoots itself in the foot. OK, we understand "queer" wasn't used in the same way in the late 40s and early 50s; but why does it pop up so often here in passing dialogue? And, yes, source music can certainly be used to highlight a character's inner workings, but when we get three none too subtle choices ("There is Nothing Like a Dame," "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," and the verse of "Frenesi," with its obvious "Everyone was gay"), it's just overkill. Speaking of music, what's with the totally bizarre quote from the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde that pops up a couple of times? Are we to assume forbidden heterosexual love is the same as what's being portrayed here? And there are some continuity issues that no doubt have to do with a smaller budget and tight shooting schedule. Two scenes of Lawrence and Du Maurier driving, supposedly weeks if not months apart, have them wearing the same outfits, and a band playing at two Doubleday events which are patently years apart is the same group of guys, down to their outfits. There's also some really poor rear projection in a shot of Lawrence and Du Maurier "driving" through Florida.
Nonetheless, Daphne has a certain elegance and will no doubt be of interest with those who partake of, shall we say, alternative lifestyles (Du Maurier evidently refused to use, and outright hated, the term "lesbian," preferring to utilize the strange euphemism "Venetian" instead). The film has a nice look, with excellent period costumes and a feel for upper crust British and American society that mostly rings true. But I'm still not sure I haven't been punk'd by a master--I need to know, did Christopher Guest do this between shooting those new DirecTV commercials?
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is crisp and clear, though a muted color palette has evidently been used on purpose, which deprives the film of any stunning saturation. There are a lot of bleak grays and faded greens to this piece, which I must believe were done on purpose to underscore Du Maurier's emotional turmoil. There was one brief moment of aliasing on an ornate staircase bannister.
A nice stereo soundtrack presents very clear dialogue with a host of great source music throughout. Separation and fidelity are both excellent. There are English subtitles available.
A very interesting late 60s travelogue written by Du Maurier entitled "Vanishing Cornwall" is included and makes for a fascinating journey through the area where Du Maurier lived most of her life, and in which many of her works are placed. The full frame color image does have some age issues, with scratches and occasional fading, but it's a fascinating historical piece nonetheless.
Daphne rests squarely on the cusp of my Recommended threshhold. It just made me laugh or grimace a few too many times for its own good. That said, the performances are lovely and the personal history of Du Maurier will no doubt be interesting for a lot of people who know her only as the name on a book. My advice is to rent it first to see if you can overlook its deficiencies enough to want it as part of your permanent collection.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet