Rebecca Review: ‘A Tepid Interpretation’
My heart sinks a little each time I hear a book I love is being made into a film. Sometimes I want the story to belong only in my imagination, perfect and undisturbed. My heart sinks even deeper when a great book that’s been adapted many times is being reimagined yet again, which is why I didn’t have high hopes for Ben Wheatley’s Netflix remake of Rebecca. I did my best to watch with an open mind, and the film wasn’t a total disaster, but instead a rather tepid interpretation of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic masterpiece. Rebecca doesn’t do enough to embrace the eeriness of its source material, nor does it justify itself as a new or original retelling.
For those who aren’t familiar with Du Maurier’s mystery thriller, it is the story of an unnamed narrator who marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, only to discover that he and his household are haunted by the memory of his beautiful late first wife, the titular Rebecca. Struggling to compete with her predecessor, the second Mrs de Winter fears for her marriage as Rebecca’s memory is kept alive by the overbearing housekeeper Mrs Danvers.
The book had its first film version from Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Surprisingly, it is the only film of Hitchcock’s ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The film is ludicrously good, and anyone who has seen it will tell you the same. It is probably the Hitchcock I remember most fondly even though it doesn’t seem to receive as much attention. So if you’re going to take on a story that’s already been done, and by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, you may be setting yourself up for failure. I’m still unsure as to what Ben Wheatley was hoping to achieve, but the only point he really scores over Hitchcock is glorious high definition.
The first fault lies in the casting. I like Lily James a lot but she’s too much of a leading lady to play the awkward and naïve central character. And because she never quite masters the painful shyness, the protagonist’s transition from an anxious young girl to a strong, assertive woman is lost. Armie Hammer is a little too young and too abrupt to be believable as the cold, aloof Englishman. Their onscreen relationship is more sexualised than in the book, which makes sense as the eighty-year-old novel does now come across as quite chaste. But the film’s eroticism does deplete the protagonist’s school-girlish naivety, which is an important cornerstone of her character’s journey. Plus, Wheatley doesn’t go to any further efforts to bring this story into the present day, which ultimately would have distinguished this film from Hitchcock’s. For example, there could have been more examination of women’s struggles in 1930s England and how the protagonist overcomes these. It’s a shame that this was left unexplored.
A couple of performances impressed me. Ann Dowd stands out as the loud and obnoxious Mrs Van Hopper, the narrator’s employer who mocks her marriage to Mr de Winter. After seeing Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, I wonder if she’ll ever be cast as a pleasant character again? Kristin Scott Thomas gives a respectable performance as Mrs Danvers, who is truly frightening and detestable at times. Other redeeming qualities are the gorgeous sets and costumes, lovely cinematography and the vivid, hyperreal style. There are a few forgotten moments from the book that I was pleased to see included, but still Wheatley’s film never quite gets to the heart of Du Maurier’s work. In an attempt to recreate a gothic romance, Wheatley’s Rebecca has all of the romance but none of the gothic.
Like so many other remakes, sequels and spin-offs, Rebecca doesn’t do much to justify its own existence. Had it made a special effort to bring the story into the modern day and completely re-imagine its characters, it may have paid off. Instead, the result was a rather twee, Downton-esque period drama with little understanding of its source material and nothing new to say whatsoever. Even without the looming shadow of Hitchcock, the film depicts the book’s tensest moments as completely bland. So if you’re in the mood for a good thriller, don’t bother with Netflix’s Rebecca. To call upon one of my favourite catchphrases: Just. Read. The. Book. Instead.