Rebecca is a ghost story about people haunted by the memory of a dead woman. It is also a romance between a man attempting to move on from the death of a wife who had such a strong hold on so many and a woman overwhelmed by constant reminders of his late wife, who she does not believe she can measure up to.
This was all captured very well in the most famous adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Hitchcock’s version brought his trademark suspense, as well as eroticism, to the story. The latest Rebecca (streaming on Netflix) lacks both of those things. Atmosphere, something Hitchcock supplied in abundance, is almost entirely missing here. There is no ramping up, either of tension or of the new wife’s feelings of inadequacy. Director Ben Wheatley mostly tells this as a straight period romance, sapping the material of a lot of its energy. Despite a couple good performances and some quality production design, it just isn’t interesting.
A young woman is in Monte Carlo, working as a lady’s companion for a rich snob. She is sent to force an introduction between her employer and the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, but Mr. de Winter is far more intrigued by her. After a whirlwind romance, they are married. Then he brings her to his massive estate, Manderley, where her every movement is done in the shadow of the beloved Rebecca.
The leisurely paced Monte Carlo scenes work decently enough. Wheatley focuses on how spectacular and almost fairy-tale-esque this is for the young woman. He lingers on shots of them looking adoringly at each other in fancy cafés, on the beach or in his convertible. Maxim is taken by her beauty and innocence; she by his charm and kindness, ignoring the fawning social-climbers to spend time with someone from a much lower class. Lily James and Armie Hammer have an easy chemistry together in this opening stretch. Her naïveté and his emotional pain are both solidly set up. Unfortunately, once Rebecca gets to Manderley, it struggles to get across the mystery and tension the characters are dealing with.
Part of that is due to Wheatley’s inability to create an effective mood. Manderley is an impressive space: large, but cold, as though a disapproving presence haunts its rooms. Yet that presence wasn’t as dominant or uninviting as it should have been. Everything is approached a little too logically, keeping the potential trauma of the situation at arms-length. I never felt like the new Mrs. de Winter was in danger of being swallowed up by the memory of Rebecca or that Maxim was… Well, I guess I didn’t believe in much of what Maxim did once the plot got going.
Armie Hammer is a very good actor (he was excellent in Call Me by Your Name). This is not his best work. There is a calmness to his performance that throws everything off. He seems too calculated to behave the way he does. He doesn’t seem haunted; more annoyed. It makes many of his choices seem weird and unmotivated. He is fine in the romantic section. However, much like the movie as a whole, he is unable to connect with the underlying horror when they get to Manderley.
Lily James is good throughout as a woman who begins to think she has gotten herself into a position she cannot succeed in. Her thoughts are led in that direction by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played creepily by Kristen Scott Thomas. She certainly understands this character, who remains so devoted to her late mistress. She does an enjoyable job suggesting the passion the production never generates.
Mrs. de Winter is burdened with the idea that she cannot live up to the legacy of Rebecca. 2020’s Rebecca cannot live up to the legacy of Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
2 out of 5
Lily James as Mrs. de Winter
Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter
Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers
Ann Dowd as Mrs. Van Hopper
Sam Riley as Jack Favell
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse