Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.

Never Marry Your Cousin

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked another one at random. Du Maurier Plaque

“This, I suppose, was what men faced when they were married. Slammed doors, and silence.
Dinner alone.”

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

Little Orphan Philip lives on a big Cornish estate at some point in time – it’s never entirely clear when, but the lack of trains would put it at some point in the early nineteenth century. His Confirmed Bachelor uncle, Ambrose, fully anticipates that Phil will inherit everything, the lazy brat, but that is before he goes on a holiday to Italy and meets, falls in love with and marries Rachel. Phil’s cousin.

Before you can say, “Cradle snatcher”, it becomes clear that Ambrose is unwell and Philip makes a mad dash across Europe, only to find his uncle dead and his mysterious cousin absent. He returns to Cornwall and begins to run the estate, blind to the sudden charms of the local unmarried women who are awaiting his proposal.

And after a few months he is joined by Rachel – whom at first he is determined to dislike because, yanno, probable homicide, but who he gets a crush on. If there were justice (and she isn’t just an evil schemer), Rachel would get the estate, and Philip seems to do everything he can to give it to her, made complicated by everything being in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday.

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

More Majestic Shalt Thou Rise

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked one at random. Du Maurier Plaque

Daphne Du Maurier, Rule Britannia (1972)

Rule Britannia was Du Maurier’s last novel, even though she died two decades later, and a weird mainstream sf effort which the 1970s was to see a few of — John Sutherland calls them As If Nigel’s and that may well do. Imagine a time forty five years ago and the Conservative Party stood in a General Election committing us the join the European Union that hadn’t wanted us as a member a few years earlier. Then imagine an economic crisis in which we are then kicked out, and the U.S. occupy us as protecting force.

That’s the premise of Rule Britannia, told from the perspective of a small town in Cornwall. The town people largely hate the Americans, presumably can’t abide the Europeans and aren’t that enamoured of Londoners.

How things have changed.

I get the sense that an awful lot of British sf up to about 1980 is refighting the Second World War — the plucky islanders, the sense of an ideal fighting for, the blitz spirit and all that. Survivors, Dad’s Army, Secret Army and “Genesis of the the Daleks” are cousins. Du Maurier in Cornwall during the Second World War would have seen the American soldiers stationed around and the local attitudes to them. I suspect the campaign to win hearts and minds — and a quick how’s your father — would have been similar to that in the novel.

The protagonist is Emma, who presumably isn’t interesting enough to narrate but is in every scene even if that takes some jiggery pokery. Her father is a merchant banker of some kind — absent for much of the novel, a vital link to the powers that were — and her grandmother is Mad, a seventy nine year old former actress, inspired by Gertrude Lawrence, Gladys Cooper and, I suspect, du Maurier herself. And then there are various adopted children, under the age of 18, who can be relied on to keep the plot spinning.

Du Maurier had been recruited to the cause of Cornish nationalism and was aware that — as tin mines and fishing declined — the capital’s big economic plan for the West Country was heritage and tourism, until package holidays destroyed even that possibility. This is the occupying U.S.’s vision of Cornwall, with Welsh and Scottish heritage in the mix. A land of surf and Doombar.

There is resistance — although I think the satirical mood here makes the novel step back from the horrors hinted at in the Resistance in The Scapegoat and attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of the authorities. There’s a pompous local MP, a suspicious American colonel (and tougher colleagues), a pliable GP and a mysterious hermit. If this wasn’t a six part BBC drama it should have been — you could easily cast it.

This was a real page turner, not quite the gothic material I’d expect from my limited sense of du Maurier, but certainly worth a read.

The Secret Scapegoat

Every one of us has his, or her, dark side. Which is to overcome the other?

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. Note “The Birds”, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked one at random. Du Maurier Plaque Daphne Du Maurier, The Scapegoat (1957) John, a university lecturer, is on holiday in France, fantasising about the past and Joan of Arc, and imagining a secret life. He runs into his exact double, Jean de Gué, and the two go for a drink, in fact a series of drinks, before retiring to de Gué’s hotel room where John passes out. He wakes, in Jean de Gué’s clothes and is mistaken for the other – a Comte who has failed to negotiate favourable terms for the family glass foundry business, who has a morphine addicted mother, who hates (and is hated by) his brother and who is shagging half the female population of the locality. Rather than saying, Oh my good man, you have mistaken me for someone else, to the chaffeur, John decides to take over de Gué’s life and set about saving the family and the business. We are in melodrama territory – the morphine mum, the swooning pregnant wife, the visionary daughter who is on the one hand disappointed by her lying daddy and on the other hand prepared to lie for him. (There is an incident quite late on, a suspicious death that the daughter alibis as accidental.) It feels curiously nineteenth century – but we are in France and we are in the decade after the Second World War and neither detail is irrelevant. The mechanisms of plot are perhaps a little too visible – and one expects the first Mmme de Gué to burn down the chateau at some point… Note that John is given no surname (remember the central character of Rebecca is nameless), and that we can but wonder if he is a doppelganger or the same person, a psychotic twin (or unpsychotic), the result of some trauma. Is John Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? I was careful to avoid spoilers whilst reading the novel and avoided the introduction. What I did discover was that it has been filmed twice, once in 2012 with Matthew Rhys directed by Charles Sturridge and previously with Alec Guinness directed by Robert Hamer. Now that is a film I do want to track down – Guinness is perfects casting (and it’s a bit Graham Greene territory as a novel) and Hamer is better known for Kind Hearts and Coronets, with several Alec Guinnesses. Betty Davies plays the matriarch, which also seems like genius casting. And so I’m tempted to have another lucky dip, another Du Maurier.