Scandalous Women on Film: Daphne, The Secret Life of Daphne du Maurier (2007)

Daphne: The Secret Life of Daphne du Maurier (2007)
Produced by the BBC
Directed by Cleare Beaven
Executive Producer: Kim Thomas
Written by Amy Jenkins based on Margaret Forster's 1993 biography


Daphne du Maurier:   Geraldine Sommerville
Ellen Doubleday:        Elizabeth McGovern
Gertrude Lawrence:   Janet McTeer
Nelson Doubleday:    Christopher Malcolm
Tommy Browning:      Andrew Harvill

Synopsis:  Set during the years between the "Rebecca" trial and the writing of Du Maurier's short story "The Birds", including her relationship with her husband Frederick 'Boy' Browning, and her largely unrequited infatuation with American publishing tycoon's wife Ellen Doubleday and her love affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence.

My thoughts:  My knowledge about Daphne du Maurier was very limited. I knew of her as a novelist, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek (well at least I had seen the films) as well as the short stories that the films The Birds and Don't Look Now were based on.  I also knew that her father had been a well-known actor manager Gerald du Maurier who has starred as the first Captain Hook in Peter Pan (her cousins, the sons of Sylvia du Maurier and Arthur Llewellyn Davis inspired The Lost Boys in the Play, see Finding Neverland). Just recently I found out that one of her paternal ancestors had been The Duke of York's mistress Mary Ann Clarke.  So when I found this film while wondering through Borders, I had to pick it up. The fact that it was on sale for $19.99 also probably contributed to my interest!

The film deals with the years 1946-1952.  At the start, Daphne's husband Frederick "Tommy" Browning has come back from the war.  The relationship has turned decidedly frosty and Daphne insists on having seperate bedrooms. We learn later that she had a brief affair during the war with another man. She's also suffering from a mild bout of writer's block, feeling the weight of the success of Rebecca weighing her down.  To add to her problems, she's being sued for plaigerism (according to Wikipedia, this wasn't the first time that she had been accused of lifting the plot of Rebecca from another novel, a Brazilian author also accused Daphne of plagiarism but the case never went to court).  She meets Ellen, the wife of her American publisher Nelson Doubleday on the ship, and is immediately powerfully attracted to her, so attracted that like an adolescent boy, she ignores her on board.

Ellen is played by Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime, Downton Abbey) as a warmly maternal woman, the perfect wife and mother.  In many ways she is a cipher who Daphne projects her emotional needs on.  She makes it fairly clear early on when she realizes the nature of Daphne's feelings for her, that she cannot reciprocate.  It was no nice to see Elizabeth McGovern is something meatier than she's been given in recent years (the role of the mother in  A Room with a View), but she's not required to do much more than wear pretty clothes and look lovely, until the final scene when she's fed up with Daphne's jealousy. 

The film really kicks into gear when Janet McTeer sashays onto the screen as the actress Gertrude Lawrence.  Daphne first meets her at a party at the Doubledays on Long Island, where she's accompanied by Noel Coward.  Gertrude is filled with joie de vivre, she's naughty and fun and wears great clothes. To cope with her feelings for Ellen, Daphne has written a play called September Tide.  In the play Ellen has been transformed into middle-aged woman who falls in love with her son-in-law (Daphne) but refuses to break her daughter's heart.  Gertrude is hired to play the Ellen substitute although Daphne thinks that she's all wrong for the part, but during rehearsals Daphne finds herself increasingly drawn to Gertrude.  It helps that Gertrude returns her feelings but there is still Ellen waiting in the wings. After Nelson Doubleday dies, Daphne convinces Ellen to take a trip to Italy with her but it is a disaster, the two discover they don't travel well together.  Daphne wants Ellen all to herself but Ellen is too much of a social creature, while Daphne loves to walk everywhere, Ellen just wants to shop.  The idyll is broken, and Daphne rushes back to Gertrude.  They run off to Florida together on holiday before Gertrude goes back to her husband and her career and Daphne goes back to Cornwall.

Daphne starts writing My Cousin Rachel, imagining Gertrude as the seductive Rachel who may or may not have killed her husband. But tragedy strikes, and Gertrude becomes ill during the run of The King and I.  She's diagnosed with hepatitis but dies shortly afterwards.  Daphne is devastated at losing Gertrude. 

I found this film alternately fascinating and frustrating at the same time.  Daphne's husband Tommy Browning is barely in the film, so we get no real sense of their relationship and what made her so dissatisifed.  At the beginning of the film, Tommy finds photos of Daphne & Gertrude just as she gets the devastating news of her death, but then nothing.  According to Margaret Forster's book no one knew the true nature of their relationship at the time just that they were good friends, so his devastation makes no sense.  Geraldine Sommerville plays Daphne as a petulant, adolescent throughout most of the film which I found annoying until I read Forster's book and realized that was basically who she was.  The real Daphne du Maurier was just as selfish and heedless as the one in the film.  At one point, the film insinuates that Gertrude and Daphne's father Gerald were sexually involved which raises all kinds of psyhological questions about Daphne besides being just plain icky.  I'm mean I've heard of father and son sharing a mistress but father and daughter?

What was fascinating was  that Daphne called herself  "a boy in a box" and that meeting Ellen released that boy inside her that she had kept hidden.  As a child, Daphne had been a tomboy, wanting to be the son that her father was not shy about wanting.  In fact, she felt that she was a boy trapped inside a girl, puberty was devastating to her because it was irrefutable proof that she was a girl.  One wonders if it had been possible, if she would have contemplated a sex change? The other fascinating thing was how she explained her sexuality.  She called it being 'Venetian,' she hated the word Lesbian and refused to apply it to herself, partly because her father had been notorously homophobic and she adored her father.  If anything, she considered herself to be bisexual, the masculine in her was what was attracted to women.

My verdict:  An uneven depiction of the author Daphne du Maurier but worth it to watch the great Janet McTeer grab the screen as Gertrude Lawrence.


Linda said…
Well, after this, I'm not so sure about watching the movie, but I definitely want to read the biography it is based on...thanks for a thoughtful review! Daphne does indeed seem to be a fascinating, "scandalous" woman ;-)
The costumes are fabulous I must say,but I've always been partial to that Dior New Look. The film very much resembles what they used to call "women's pictures". I get the feeling that the dirctor was going for a Douglas Sirk feel.

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