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, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.
Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Anna Dowd, Bill Paterson
Director: Ben Wheatley
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Ah…remakes. They’re a funny thing, aren’t they? Sometimes you find a film that is so perfect that to remake it would seem like blasphemy but with a clever way in and enough time between the original it just might work. Then there are the re-dos for the sake of lining the pockets of investors and those, dear reader, never turn out well. What about the remake that is perfectly fine, entertaining but sort of listless and doesn’t really fit into any category in the good or bad column? These are the ones you have to think a little harder about, because they require some effort to review. To make that final judgement you’ll have to dig a little deeper in your feelings.
First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s (The Birds) gothic novel Rebecca has been a best-seller that has never gone out of print and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a little something for everyone in the story of a shy girl who falls for a haunted man and it’s no wonder that director Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to turn the novel into a film in short order. Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two in 1940, including Best Picture, Rebecca set a high water mark for slow-burn mysteries that didn’t need to boil over to be highly effective. The performances in Hitchcock’s film are legendary, particularly Judith Anderson’s unnerving presence as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
Over the years, Rebecca has been adapted for a number of mediums, and if you want a good lunchtime read, look up the lawsuit surrounding the failed attempt to bring it to Broadway as a musical. It’s a doozy. Yet for all the various versions of the work it’s been quite some time since the material was reexamined and provided a fresh adaptation and that’s what’s been worked out in a new production debuting on Netflix. With a screenplay by Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black), Joe Shrapnel (Race), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), that pays homage to the novel in ways the 1940 version couldn’t while providing its own tweaks along the way, this Rebecca is grand in scale and design yet somehow less atmospheric than the original Oscar winner and I think I have an idea why.
First…let’s talk plot. Lily James (Darkest Hour) plays a young girl (it took me until ¾ of the way through to remember we never learn her first name) who has no family to speak of caught up in a whirlwind romance with handsome widower Maxim de Winter while working for a aging ninny (Ann Dowd, Bachelorette) in Monte Carlo. Accompanying him back to Manderley, his opulent English seaside estate presided over by the perilous head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, Military Wives), it’s obvious from the start this new life is going to be a tough adjustment. Not that she receives much help from her husband (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) or the household staff, many of who seem to still be loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter.
The longer the new Mrs. de Winter stays at Manderley, the more curious she becomes with her predecessor and the power she seems to have had over everyone. More than that, it feels as if Mrs. Danvers is actively trying to keep Rebecca’s seat at the table unoccupied for her eventual return…meaning the new bride should be careful who she trusts. With her new husband sleepwalking often into the wing of the house he shared with Rebecca, occasional visions of a mysterious woman in a red dress, and a cliffside boathouse holding secrets that will reveal more about the goings-on at Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter launches her own fact-finding mission to discover the truth. Then, a body is found nearby.
It was exciting to find out this new Rebecca was being directed by Ben Wheatley who was behind the terrifying Kill List from several years back (an early entry on 31 Days to Scare, by the way). I knew Rebecca wasn’t exactly a “scare” kind of picture but more of the “dramatic suspense” sort of genre so I’m shoehorning this in a bit but I expected Wheatley to take this a little further than he does…and even then it’s not as sharp as it could have been. Instead, I think Wheatley and the screenwriters focused on making their film a classy-first affair and resisted the urge to sully it with anything that could detract or distract from the love story (haunted or otherwise) at its center. Fans will either appreciate that (if you like the book) or be disappointed (if you like the director). Me, I leaned more toward the appreciation side of the fence because it’s all handled with a high level of craftsmanship, from the striking costumes to the gorgeous production design. What it lacks in high stakes it makes up for in high quality.
Casting was key to this and I wouldn’t have wanted to fill the shoes of any of the three leads – all of them had an uphill battle but I think they all slid down the other side without any skinned knees. Hammer likely struggles the most but only because it’s the toughest nut of a part to crack and he’s following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier…unenviable. Still, he looks great in a suit (though doesn’t look remotely like he belongs in this time period). First becoming a start on Downton Abbey, James curiously also doesn’t quite look like she belongs in this era, although her change from naïve girl to devoted wife is quite convincing. Make no doubt about it, the best role in Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers and Scott Thomas enters the film, sits down, puts her napkin in her lap, and proceeds to make a meal out of her role and then finishes everyone else’s plate for good measure. Nothing will ever erase Judith Anderson’s searing performance but Scott Thomas comes awfully close…it’s a treasure.
I need to go back and watch the 1940 Rebecca again because I failed to do that before watching the new version; however I almost preferred to go in with just the memories of the original on my mind and not having it quite so fresh. That way, I didn’t have the ghost of that haunting me like the woman herself haunted all the people at Manderley. I think this new version acquits itself nicely. It looks terrific and has two solid performances and one that’s a must-see.