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Monday, June 30, 2008

DAPHNE -- DVD review by porfle

Sizing herself up in the mirror before attending a stuffy party, Daphne du Maurier frowns at her fancy evening gown and mutters, "Why can't I just wear velvet trousers and a boyish belt?"

Based in part on her own letters and memoirs, the BBC TV-movie DAPHNE (2007) is all about the famous author wishing, like Pinocchio, that she were a boy. A bisexual boy, that is. The main emphasis is on Daphne's all-consuming infatuation for her American publisher's beautiful, outgoing wife, Ellen Doubleday, whom she meets while in the states to contest a plagiarism charge. Daphne finds Ellen an irresistible ray of sunshine in contrast to the increasingly distant relationship she endures with her troubled WWII veteran husband, Tommy (Andrew Havill).

After restraining her fierce romantic impulses as long as she can, Daphne finally professes her love to Ellen and is painfully rebuffed. "Love is love," she frets. "How can there be different ways?" She then finds rebound solace in the willing arms of the flamboyant stage diva Gertrude Lawrence, although their torrid affair leaves Daphne frustrated and unfulfilled. Interestingly, Daphne doesn't consider herself a "lesbian" at all--she despises the word, in fact. In her mind, if not her body, she has always been a boy.

I was expecting to see a serious, comprehensive look at the life of Daphne du Maurier here, so I didn't start getting into this movie until I realized that it's actually the sort of gaudy, hand-wringing upperclass soap opera--complete with furiously overwrought musical score--that people like Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman used to star in. Except in this case, the Rock Hudson role is played by the lead actress. Once I got what it was about, this handsomely mounted, well-played melodrama about unrequited love and gender identity, and how these feelings and experiences served as an inspiration in Daphne's writing, became fairly involving.

Geraldine Somerville ("Lily Potter" of the Harry Potter series) plays the troubled author of "Rebecca", "My Cousin Rachel", and "The Birds" with a long-suffering wistfulness which will appeal to either your empathy or your apathy. Elizabeth McGovern, aging nicely these days, is likable as the winsome social butterfly over which Daphne goes sweetly ga-ga. Best of all is Janet McTeer as brassy broad Gertrude Lawrence, who is the kind of woman Daphne finds exciting but wouldn't want to marry. The only other role I've seen McTeer play was Nelly in the 1992 WUTHERING HEIGHTS, so this is quite an interesting change which she handles beautifully.

The DVD image is 1.77:1, with Dolby Digital sound. The sole bonus feature is a du Maurier-penned documentary entitled "Vanishing Cornwall", which runs about half an hour and was directed by her son, Christian Browning. The author herself appears briefly at the beginning of this dry, rather dull look at the history of her beloved homeplace.

DAPHNE is the kind of smart, stately, yet tastefully decadent soap opera that you can indulge in like an unhealthy confection. That is, if you have the taste for such things. Otherwise, it may just leave you with a queasy stomach.

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