Synopsis – A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.
My Take – In my book, remaking a classic is always a bad idea, unless of course the newest filmmaker has something noteworthy to add to make his film stand apart and more like a companion piece to the original. Virtually silencing dictators who are always eager to point out how the earlier stuff was better.
However, few filmmakers would’ve taken on the challenge of adapting author Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic romance, Rebecca, probably because auteur Alfred Hitchcock made it for cinemas, a film which would go on to win the Best Picture, and Best Cinematography at that year’s Academy Awards. And remarkably, eighty years later, the particular film continues to be regarded as a masterful psychological thriller.
But as a viewer I kept an open mind as British filmmaker Ben Wheatley was the one helming the project. As a director, Wheatley has skillfully genre-hopped from horror to action to sci-fi to black comedies, and whatever flaws his films are said to possess, you can feel the filmmaker’s presence in every cut, testing every potentially impenetrable material for entry points and generating the kind of wild, whirring, frenetic chaos that has garnered his films a cult following.
Unfortunately, his first take on the psychological thriller genre isn’t as effective as it could been. Sure, there are a couple good performances, one particularly savory, and is definitely gorgeous looking, however, for all the beauty director Wheatley puts on the screen, the story just doesn’t grab you the way it should. As a result, the film ends up disappointing both who were hoping for a faithful update of a classic and Wheatley fans, like myself, looking for some top tier weirdness.
There’s nothing awful about what Netflix has come up with here, but not much stands out either. All in all, it’s frustratingly fine, and considering that there is a better version of this story available, it’s just not quite good enough.
The story follows a young English woman (Lily James), who has been traveling the world as the lady companion to the garish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who doesn’t always treat her right. However life takes a drastic turn during their stay at Monte Carlo, were she catches the eye of the recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Despite their class difference, the two hit it off immediately and spend the rest of the week together, which eventually turns into a burgeoning romance, which results in Maxim asking her to quit her job and marry him.
But once she becomes the new Mrs. de Winter and arrive at his ancestral home, the Gothic manor Manderley on the wild Cornish coast, their honeymoon period seems to be over. As everywhere she turns, there are reminders of Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca. Especially from Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who continues to maintain an unusually strong loyalty to the first Mrs. de Winter, and takes every opportunity to remind how Rebecca would’ve done things, forcing the younger woman to feel deteriorated under the weight of the dead woman’s memory. Making matters worse, even Maxim seems to be piling up on secrets from her, and is unwilling to discuss anything.
The story starts enticingly, and gets you invested in the characters. Working from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the film keeps it focus tight on Lily James’s blushing new bride, whose marriage to the wealthy Maxim offers her a new standard of living with which she is decidedly uncomfortable and finds new angles on the story, offering a more contemporary interpretation of the gas lighting going on throughout the narrative.
Rather than focusing solely on everything inside the property, here, director Wheatley takes his time to slowly peel the psychological twists and turns with a love story, while raising questions about Maxim’s true nature, various terrible secrets shared by the staff, and Mrs. Danvers’s motives, all leading up to a climactic courtroom procedural.
Acting as the main layer, the film is quite gorgeous to look at. Grandly shot by Laurie Rose, this is certainly an eye-catching production, featuring lovely and distinctive costume design, making this is certainly a visually handsome film, deploying that dramatic English coastline to great effect while swinging between Hitchcockian wide shots and striking close-ups with slashes of light across Lily James’ beautiful high-cheek boned face.
The 2020 film is also a more faithful adaptation, restoring a story point that Hitchcock changed due to the moralistic guidelines of Hollywood’s Hays Code, while downplaying the 1930s slut-shaming.
However, while the earlier acts are effective and evocative but by the final stretch, the film just loses its magnetism. Making it a plain tale that lacks soul and thrill. For a “Rebecca” adaptation to work correctly, the title character should have felt throughout every scene. But here, director Wheatley is not able to conjure up the unseen here, and so the film plays as a languid melodrama when it should be something more elemental.
While the shots of the mansion, sea and the nightmares are spooky, he couldn’t create an impression that the trailer had promised. Manderley never really becomes its own character, never builds an atmosphere of claustrophobia despite its volume.
For most of its two-hour run time, the film feels stranded somewhere between re-creation and reinvention—the artistic equivalent of no man’s land. It’s not an unpleasant watch, but what’s frustrating is that a witty, satirically-minded filmmaker like Wheatley could have recognized the potential in trying to reboot a cautionary fable about the anxiety of influence.
Nevertheless, Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas turn in tremendous performances. Scott Thomas does a brilliant job in a role that was played with memorably by Judith Anderson in the Hitchcock version. Here, she’s equal parts malice and hurt, her ill-intent driven by obsession but also pain. James looks drop dead gorgeous in every frame, and powerfully carries her character which requires her to go completely 360 till the final credits roll in.
Hammer is every inch the suave, magnetic charmer and does a good job being a sweet, romantic man enamoring a lady with his charm and affection. In smaller roles, Ann Dowd, Sam Riley, Ben Crompton and Keeley Hawes put in well-polished cameos. On the whole, ‘Rebecca ‘ is a stylish but flawed remake of a masterful psychological thriller.
Directed – Ben Wheatley
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 121 minutes