Film Review: Rebecca
Directed by Ben Wheatley. US, 2020, 121 minutes.
Available on Netflix beginning October 21.
The first film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca (1940), quite famously directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a delicious, melodramatic ghost story about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) haunted by the memory of her husband’s first wife, full of style and intrigue and Laurence Olivier saying devilish things like, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” This new Rebecca, helmed by Ben Wheatley, is but an imitation of what Hollywood glamour and greatness looked like in 1940, produced by a studio that’s in the midst of a long-term project to zombify that era. The actors wear their cute little costumes and go through the motions of a classic, but there’s no soul to be found here, not beneath the surface, and not even in the line readings.
The new lead actors are Armie Hammer and Lily James, who are both youngish, blondeish, and incredibly beautiful—they’ve literally starred in live-action Disney remakes as a prince and princess. They’ve also both recently made gossip-mag headlines for romantic scandals. These details aren’t to say either actor is untalented, nor to suggest they’re secretly undervalued. Rather, their placement at the heart of Rebecca works to highlight just how keenly this pale, rigid film is aping something it can’t quite be. Gone is Olivier’s commanding timbre, charming surliness, and overcast look; inadequately replaced by Hammer’s sun-tanned, specifically-American broadness, thinly disguised here by an English inflection and an ugly mustard suit. And Fontaine’s impassioned expressions of wide-eyed terror at playing sexual second-fiddle to a woman older, darker, and wilder are if anything sanitized by the reinterpretations of the more clumsy-sexy James, who brings the role back down to the level of generic scorned-woman weepiness.
Although the colors in the upbeat first act of Wheatley’s Rebecca are often lurid (particularly for one who recently watched the monochrome original), the film is composed in a color palette I can only think to call Netflix sepia—a grading that doesn’t evoke the texture of celluloid-era studio filmmaking but just occasionally dampens its compositions in heavily post-corrected frames that play as if they were produced under cheap tinted gels. Shots do not linger, and the camera does not move unexpectedly. There is no version of Hitchcock’s creative empty tracking shot that follows an invisible Rebecca around the room. There is sex, but only in the abstract. And desperately little longing—iconic queer villain Mrs. Danvers (a perfectly bitchy Kristin Scott Thomas) is the most interesting character in the story, but she isn’t consumed by the same fire for Rebecca.
There is one interesting dream sequence where the second Mrs. de Winter envisions being eaten alive by growing vines, Cedric Diggory-style, as well as an upside-down ball where our heroine serves a bit of Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth (1986), but the film never really achieves pleasurable excess. There is no laughter, are no gasps. For a story with as many twists and turns as Rebecca, the whole affair is resoundingly flat—the Netflix-original style-guide having presumably curtailed any possibility of perversion.
Perhaps most disappointingly, Wheatley and his longtime cinematographer Laurie Rose rarely play around with light and shadow, a foundational technique for the original film (and most other screen adaptations of Gothic romances). Early in the film, we do see Lily James lying defeated on her cramped bed while listening to Mrs. Van Hopper (a hilarious Ann Dowd, chewing the scenery as she ought to) complaining about her behavior while a single crack of light falls across her face. Briefly, I thought—they’re doing it! But aside from that, the dark is never dark enough, and the light never entices or stuns us. Everything the camera sees falls into some range of acceptable, plain visibility that sucks most of the story’s fun and mystery right out of the frame.
Of course, Rebecca doesn’t claim to be adapting the 1940 film, but rather du Maurier’s original novel, and some of the more interesting elements indeed occur when the screenplay veers away from Hitchcock to stick to the book instead. Namely, its commitment to the gory details of the text’s big reveal means that James’ Mrs. de Winter gets to be a little bit evil—or at least morally ambiguous. But while that’s a refreshing change of pace, the movie does little in this newfound gray area. Even the film’s sunny epilogue works to blunt the melodrama that came before. It’s as if the raison d’etre of this remake was to befit the studio’s “strong female lead” and “more titles related to Hollywood” submenus—nothing more complicated, lest its makers confuse the algorithm. [★★]
Cassidy Olsen is a film critic, culture journalist and screenwriter based in Dublin, Ireland.