Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek was my favorite romance as a kid, and when I found a copy of it in a bookstore in my twenties, became enthralled with it all over again. Du Maurier excelled at atmospheric suspense, and what girl wouldn’t love a period drama featuring a heroine running away from London society (and her dumb husband) with her kids to luxuriate in freedom and nature in Cornwall, and falling for a pirate as independent and daring as she? I hoped the movie would capture much, if not all, of the book’s magic–and it really does.
But it’s more than that. A biographer claimed the story was based on the novelist’s own romance, and I always believed there was truth to it. There’s something authentic in the chemistry between the two characters, in their vulnerability with and to each other, and in both their passion for each other and acknowledgement that theirs shouldn’t be anything but a temporary affair. I feared the movie would follow the outlines but miss that authenticity, but it didn’t, largely because large portions of the dialogue are lifted straight from the book. The actors have some chemistry, too, which helps sell the romance.
Even the beginning of the story is absorbing: The heroine’s flight from London, her discovery of a pirate’s ship as she ventures in the woods near her manor…
The story picks up speed and romance with her awkward midnight feast with the pirate, her joining into his theft of a countryman’s ship, her husband’s arrival, and her efforts to foil the hanging plot against her now-lover by attempting to flirt with her guests just long enough for the ship to escape.
Some of the suggestive lines do make it into the film, as when Jean, the pirate, notices the spread at dinner, but looks straight at his beautiful hostess as he says, “Is it wise of you to place all this temptation before a pirate?”
Joan Fontaine captures Dona; the spirited, smart heroine; even managing her voice.
All she really gets wrong is a tendency to pose now and then, and a lack of attention to Dona’s wit; Fontaine can be arch, but she misses the irritability with Cornish high society that was one of the character’s greatest charms. Fontaine plays Dona as a little too sweet, a little too filtered. The heroine is less interesting without her shocking double entendres, or the comic timing Fontaine never attempts (of course, this absence is partially the censors’ fault). But this is a book lover’s quibble; I doubt a viewer unacquainted with the novel would find fault with her character, as she’s still brash, proud, romantic, adventurous, intelligent–all the qualities we would hope for in a pirate-loving gal.
Arturo de Córdova’s ethnicity might make him a peculiar choice in a strictly French-versus-the-English tale. (Don’t you love that about Hollywood? Need a French dude? Any guy with an accent will do.)
Overall, de Córdova manages the role with only slight piratey exaggeration. He catches the hero’s sense of humor, and an independence so extreme he hesitates to make any decisions for his love–probably a quality unique in pirate characterizations, but one that has always made him seem real to me. If not a pirate, surely this man would have been an obsessive in some political movement or another, unwilling to compromise his ideals.
Cecil Kellaway as William, the matchmaking servant, is delightful, and Basil Rathbone as Lord Rockingham, Dona’s nemesis, is perfection.
Any fan of Du Maurier’s work will enjoy time in her world again; lovers of romance will root for these two. Swordplay aficionados might crave more fencing time, but they’ll enjoy the devilry of Jean, his resemblance to their Errol Flynn favorites. Women can relish a strong-minded heroine who weighs her obligations against her passions, her annoyance with society, against her safety within it. (The lighting of the film accentuates her power of choice: he is shadowed, and she lit.)
This post is part of Movies Silently’s wonderful Swashaton. Click here for more pirating adventures!