Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley
Eight decades ago, an idiosyncratic British director was summoned to Hollywood, where as his first project, he was tasked with making an adaptation of the hottest new novel on the shelves: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. And now, in 2020, another UK filmmaker with a penchant for the unpleasant has come knocking on Hollywood’s door. But Ben Wheatley is no Alfred Hitchcock, and his Rebecca is merely a mannequin, a plastic attraction lacking a soul.
Perhaps that is why the film seems more preoccupied with the costumes than the drama. Perhaps that is why Wheatley concerns himself more with the bells and whistles than finding a beating heart. It’s breathtakingly shot by Wheatley’s regular cinematographer Laurie Rose, and luxuriously scored by Clint Mansell — an effect that gives it the impression of being designed for distribution not on Netflix, but on Instagram.
Watch the Rebecca trailer here
The new Rebecca, based on this yardstick alone, is a lot like Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant The Great Gatsby, although that film captured the spirit of the source material more successfully than most give it credit for.
Those involved in making Rebecca 2.0 insist that it isn’t a remake, but rather a new adaptation of du Maurier’s novel. This is the fashionable thing to say; a convenient clause invoked by everyone from the Coen Brothers (True Grit) to Tim Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Call it what you want — a re-imagining, a reboot, a re-adaptation — just don’t call it a ‘remake’.
But try as he might to distance himself from Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning classic, neither Wheatley nor his cast and crew can shake off the comparisons that will inevitably follow.
Both films begin in Monte Carlo, where an unnamed young woman (played by a feisty Lily James) and the reclusive rich-boy Maxim de Winter (a dull Armie Hammer) embark on a whirlwind romance that ends at the altar. De Winter is a widower, visibly struggling with the death of his first wife, Rebecca. She’s never seen, but her spectre haunts every scene, summoned as it is at remarkable regularity by Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper of de Winters’ sprawling estate, Manderley.
It is in Manderley’s cavernous bedrooms and vacant hallways, and along its lush lawns and beautiful beaches that most of the narrative unfolds. And it’s all very pretty — Rebecca is a dazzlingly pretty movie starring distractingly pretty people. It’s the sort of film that you could pause at virtually any moment, rip out the random frame and post it on your Instagram stories without so much as a sneaky edit.
In an inspired bit of casting, Kristin Scott Thomas plays the dour Mrs Danvers, determined, as ever, to not allow the new Mrs de Winter to establish herself as the woman of the house. Danvers’ allegiances, you see, still lie with the late Rebecca. It’s the juiciest role in the film, and Scott Thomas’ performance helps transcend Danvers’ villainous origins, and transforms her into a more sympathetic character — a spellbound spinster clinging to her past.
Perhaps thanks to the involvement of screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kingsman, X-Men: First Class), Wheatley is able to pull to the surface the LGBTQ allegory that was so rudely drowned out in Hitchcock’s film. Much has been written about du Maurier’s sexuality, but until now, it was never made a dominant theme in the several adaptations of her work, including Biren Nag’s Kohraa, starring Biswajeet and Waheeda Rehman.
Wheatley is mostly playing by the rules here, and although he has never been one to check himself, his Rebecca is too timid an adaptation to truly stand out among the flurry of prestige Netflix pictures that will descend upon our homepages in the coming weeks. But even he can’t help himself on a couple of occasions. The first arrives midway through the film, when Wheatley cranks up the Gothic horror and crafts a bizarre party scene that reminded me of a similar one that he directed in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise. The second arrives like a punch to the gut right at the end. I shan’t reveal more details, but it’s the only time that Wheatley appears to be in the mood for subversion.
After having scrutinised the film, I can conclude that Danvers’ updated arc is the sole justification for the film’s existence. Rebecca is a love story, of that there is no doubt; it’s just not a love story between the people we thought it was about.