12 April 1997: The Gazette

Dame Diana Rigg does a wicked Mrs. Danvers

Scary servant faithful to du Maurier classic Rebecca, making for creepy TV

Diana Rigg is on television tomorrow night, reminding viewers that there is nothing like a Dame.

A 1994 Queen's-list honoree in recognition of her distinguished acting career in movies, television and theatre, Dame Diana shows up playing a malevolent servant in Rebecca. The two-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 ghost story will be telecast on Masterpiece Theatre.

Tricked out in basic black before it was hip, her face encrusted with the kind of Aunt Ethel makeup you hate to see bearing down on you at a family wedding, Rigg is deliciously scary as Mrs. Danvers. The effect is accentuated by the 59-year-old actress's rigid body language and clipped manner of speech. Mrs. Danvers has spent a lifetime in service, suffering fools none too gladly. She's got a permanent headache, her feet hurt, she sleeps alone - and you cross her at your extreme peril.

Rigg, who was a Mrs. (Peel, in The Avengers) decades before becoming a Dame, hasn't been this squirrelly since Mother Love. Her performance here makes you hope that someone was pointing a camera at Rigg during her most recent role: Martha in a London revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Hitchcock's first Hollywood film

Everyone is afraid of Mrs. Danvers, who rules as chief housekeeper of Manderley, a sprawling country estate in Cornwall on the English seacoast. The Ponderosa-like spread (the drive from the gates to the front door includes a rest stop) belongs to Maxim de Winter (played by Charles Dance), a middle-aged aristocrat. His first wife, Rebecca, was the victim of a mysterious drowning accident.

As the TV production begins, the mourning widower is on holiday in Monte Carlo. De Winter meets and falls for the travelling companion - unnamed throughout the story - of a wealthy American (Faye Dunaway).

It's as close to love at first sight as you can get at that stratum of society in 1927. Aloof, arrogant, worldly and given to sardonic put-downs, de Winter utterly charms a 21-year-old innocent.

The object of his rakish affections is played by Emilia Fox. Oxford-educated daughter of actors Edward Fox and Joanna David (who was in a previous PBS Rebecca), the actress is a hazel-eyed blonde upon whom the camera dotes in numerous closeups.

After a too-lengthy setup (exacerbated by the scenery-chomping of Dunaway, a once-gifted actress whose artistry is sinking inexorably toward the nether regions occupied by Joan Collins and worse), the heroine of Rebecca finds herself married into money and mistress of a huge household. An intimidating situation becomes progressively more terrifying as Rebecca unfolds - initially, at the languid pace that makes televised baseball seem absolutely frenetic by comparison.

Mrs. Danvers remains devoted to her first mistress. The housekeeper uses her considerable powers of psychological terrorism to make the second Mrs. de Winter feel like an interloper.

Du Maurier wrote a classic ghost story that inspired a stage play, a film and a previous television adaptation.

Hitchcock's First Hollywood Film

The 1940 movie version of Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine (future Dame), Judith Anderson (as Mrs. Danvers) and George Sanders. It was Alfred Hitchcock's first Hollywood film, and Rebecca won the great director his only best-movie Academy Award.

Oscar casts a long shadow, and it was 40 years before anyone dared remake Rebecca for television. The 1980 adaptation, starring Jeremy Brett and Joanna David, ran in four episodes on Mystery (Masterpiece Theatre's weeknight cousin).

The TV remake is being billed as the most complete and faithful rendition of du Maurier's novel. It is probably the most sumptuous.

Period costumes and sets are dazzling. Rebecca features breathtaking exteriors (the Manderley gardens in bloom will bring tears to the eyes of freezing Montrealers), the sunniness of which contrasts vividly with the gothic gloom of the manor house.

The Oscar-winning Rebecca added an Academy Award for cinematography. TV director Jim O'Brien (The Jewel in the Crown) also uses the camera to accentuate the sense of don't-open-that-door menace that permeates Rebecca.

In one scene, the new Mrs. de Winter decides to visit the house's west wing, Rebecca's favorite section, closed off since her death. As the camera tracks Fox on her tentative foray down dimly lit hallways, a violin solo eases its way up out of the sound track. The music stops abruptly for a jump cut to the face of Mrs. Danvers, demanding: ``What do you want here, Madame?''

Brrrrrrrr, scary!

This is creepy TV the way it ought to be done.

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