Review: Rebecca

Year: 2020
Duration: 121 minutes
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas

By Valerie Kalfrin

Early in Netflix’s adaptation of “Rebecca,” Daphne du Maurier’s classic Gothic mystery, the protagonist (Lily James) balks at the idea that her new husband’s late wife still holds a place in his heart. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she says.

“Rebecca” is a story filled with ghosts: of lost or imagined love, insecurities, even murder. But unfortunately, the ghosts in this tepid adaptation are the suspense, atmosphere, and intrigue of the original 1938 novel and director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, which won an Oscar for Best Picture.

Lily James in “Rebecca” / Photo by Kerry Brown/Netflix /© Netflix, Inc. / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Any adaptation carries risks. Some, like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot color take on “Psycho,” seem doomed on paper, let alone on screen. Others change the source material or previous versions just enough to bring out a fresh perspective or theme. Disney’s 2016 live-action version of “The Jungle Book” rewards viewers with lush visuals and makes Mowgli a more active character. Likewise, 2015’s “Cinderella” introduces Ella (James, “Downton Abbey”) and the prince before the ball, laying a foundation for their romance and showing a character’s courage through kindness.

“Hammer is all wrong for the part of a man who either is grieving, has secrets, or is too repressed not to engender suspicion. He’s handsome but not mysterious. James fares a bit better, but the film relies too much on her leaning into doe-eyed innocence.”

“Rebecca” could be ripe for a modern interpretation. For the uninitiated, the title takes its name from Rebecca de Winter, the late wife of aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier in the Hitchcock version). Rebecca dies before the novel opens; yet she’s a strong presence throughout the book. She’s as much a character as Manderley, the manor where Maxim brings his new bride (Joan Fontaine in the Hitchcock film) after a whirlwind romance. The new Mrs. de Winter is gawky where Rebecca was glamorous and refined and feels herself paling by comparison, especially under the withering gaze and comments of the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Naturally, fans of “Rebecca” may be curious as to how director Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise”) would set his vision apart. But beyond being in color, which makes the period costumes, scenery, and production design look lavish, this version is a misfire. There’s a disturbing lack of atmosphere in “Rebecca,” a story ripe for psychological exploration. (Swirls of CGI birds at a few points made me wish for the tension of night, fog, and a well-placed lantern.)

“Rebecca” is a story filled with ghosts: of lost or imagined love, insecurities, even murder. But unfortunately, the ghosts in this tepid adaptation are the suspense, atmosphere, and intrigue of the original 1938 novel and director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, which won an Oscar for Best Picture.

Incidentally, the YouTube channel Miss Hanna Loves Grammar has an excellent analysis of the book, noting how the plot frames the new bride’s insecurities around her marrying above her social class. But that’s a vehicle for du Maurier’s own ambivalence about traditional gender roles and femininity at the time. (Du Maurier’s sexuality was fluid, making repressed sexuality another theme in the book and the Hitchcock film.)

Armie Hammer and Lily James in “Rebecca” / Photo by Kerry Brown/Netflix /© Netflix, Inc. / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Screenwriters Jane Goldman (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”), Joe Shrapnel (“Seberg”), and Anna Waterhouse (“Frankie & Alice”) don’t provide any depth to the young Mrs. de Winter – or any subtext when the obvious line will do. Along with the poor pacing, there’s little chemistry between James, as the unnamed new bride, and Armie Hammer (“On the Basis of Sex,” “Call Me by Your Name”) as Maxim de Winter.

“One of the best performances in “Rebecca” belongs to Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers…Once Mrs. Danvers becomes more bold and biting, Scott Thomas shows her bilious strength in her jealousy over Rebecca’s replacement.”

To be fair, Maxim and his new Mrs. should appear mismatched. His proposal – “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” – carries over from the source material, as does his aloofness once the couple arrives at Manderley. But Hammer is all wrong for the part of a man who either is grieving, has secrets, or is too repressed not to engender suspicion. He’s handsome but not mysterious. James fares a bit better, but the film relies too much on her leaning into doe-eyed innocence. Even as Cinderella or the sweet Southern waitress in “Baby Driver,” her characters had more dimension than just naiveté.

Kristin Scott Thomas in “Rebecca” / Photo by Kerry Brown/Netflix /© Netflix, Inc. / Courtesy of IMDB.com

The best performances in “Rebecca” belong to Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper that Judith Anderson played in 1940, and Ann Dowd as Mrs. Van Hopper, the protagonist’s boorish employer when the young woman and Maxim meet in Monte Carlo. Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” TV’s “Fleabag”) telegraphs with a stare that the new Mrs. de Winter is in over her head. Once Mrs. Danvers becomes more bold and biting, Scott Thomas shows her bilious strength in her jealousy over Rebecca’s replacement. As for Dowd (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), she relishes cutting loose as the boozy boss who provides early exposition and sows doubt that Maxim doesn’t really love his new bride; he’s just tired of being alone in that big old house.

Wheatley and his creative team had a lot to draw upon in this complicated cocktail to set their vision apart. But the end result is much like the new Mrs. de Winter, viewing Rebecca’s portrait in the manor, and feeling lacking.  

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