Any film adaptation following something that horror legend Alfred Hitchcock has put his hands on has a lot to live up to. For many, Hitchcock’s version of Rebecca is perfect. No one can live up to the standard he set. That’s why when it was announced the beloved novel by Daphne du Maurier was being adapted once more, many were wary. However, comparisons are the death of appreciation. This film is not Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca nor does it need to be. Ben Wheatley’s REBECCA is a new take on the novel that feels refreshing but, in adapting closer to its source material, can occasionally lag.
Ben Wheatley directs the film, from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. The film is based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier and stars Lily James (Cinderella), Armie Hammer (On The Basis of Sex), Kristin Scott Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Keeley Hawes (“Bodyguard”), Ann Dowd (Hereditary), Sam Riley (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), Tom Goodman-Hill (“Humans”), Mark Lewis Jones (“Chernobyl”), John Hollingworth (“Poldark”) and Bill Paterson (“Fleabag”).
In REBECCA, a young woman (Lily James) meets widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. Taking interest in her, they both engage in a whirlwind romance while the young woman’s employer is ill. After her employer decides to leave last-minute, Maxim de Winter proposes to the woman, which guarantees that she stays by his side. While the warmth and rush of romance still linger as they venture on their honeymoon, the mood and energy shifts as soon as the newlyweds arrive at de Winter’s home alongside the English Coast. Everything changes upon returning to Manderley.
Thrust into an entirely different social status with her marriage to Maxim, the new Mrs. de Winter tries to settle into her new life on the Manderley estate. However, the shadow Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, still casts over the estate and its occupants is heavy and difficult to shirk off. And her legacy is still maintained and upheld by the disconcerting housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is Rebecca’s biggest devotee. As Mrs. Danvers works to undermine Mrs. de Winter’s faith in herself, the young woman gets swept away in her obsession, jealousy, and desire to live up to this idol that has taken root inside her mind. Will she win the battle over the memory of the dead? Or will she succumb and lose herself in the process?
One of the biggest concerns for many leading into this latest adaptation of REBECCA was whether or not the cast would be up to snuff. Much criticism was launched with just the debut of first-look images. I’m here to say that the concerns are for naught. Lily James gives one of her best performances as our unnamed narrator. She captures the evolution of the character from mousy, uncertain to obsessively jealous to teetering on the edge of breaking and – ultimately – steeling herself up to defend her man. Her chemistry with Armie Hammer’s Maxim radiates off the screen. Hammer does decent work, though his British accent does slip noticeably in and out for this reviewer. He’s a lot warmer than what many will want for Maxim but it works quite well with this particular casting. Kristin Scott Thomas’s Mrs. Danvers is chilling, yet has hints of warmth to lure both our narrator and the viewer into a false sense of security. It is this handling of the well-known villainess that makes her truly formidable and a natural standout in the film.
REBECCA captures the infusion of genres that take place in its originating, melodramatic story. While Gothic at its core, we’re taken through a handful of genres – romance, gothic fiction, and mystery to name a few. Each genre shift is noticeable through the usage of colors, set design, and more, which helps signify the metaphorical shift in tone as the story progresses. From the bright, sunny warm textures featured in romantic Monte Carlo to the grey, weepy tones devoid of color and life in Manderley, these visuals help take us through our young narrator’s psychological journey as well as she transitions from the happiest time of her life to the most stressful. Director Ben Wheatley, production designer Sarah Greenwood, and cinematographer Laurie Rose work hand in hand to ensure that the transitions, at least visually, are smooth, yet distinct in appearance.
While the infusion of genres is a major highlight, the attempt to remain as faithful as possible to the original novel is also praiseworthy. We’re reminded immediately of the novel with the narrator’s opening line, “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Throughout the course of REBECCA, there are nods here and there to the tiniest of details, some of which I am sure I missed. A notable difference that fans of the novel and Hitchcock’s film will pick up on is the handling of Rebecca’s death. Due to production codes at the time, Hitchcock had to alter the specifics as to how Rebecca died. For those who have not read the original novel, but have only seen the Hitchcock film, this will be a major change for them. However, the change helps to provide a complexity to the relationship between Maxim and the narrator that will have viewers wondering whether or not this is a love that the narrator should keep pursuing.
One issue that REBECCA has, whether due to aiming to be as faithful to the novel as possible, is that it sometimes drags. Let me clarify. There’s a whole lot going on and it’s not entirely the film’s fault. Daphne du Maurier’s novel was and still is incredibly extra. You have a windswept romance in Monte Carlo, shipwrecks, a giant ball, costume parties, a murder mystery, a fire of epic proportions, etc. With so much happening and taking part in the span of a two hour run time, there’s a lot to get through. And, despite the constant shifts in activity onscreen, there were moments where the pacing slowed down too noticeably. If the film had shed 10-15 minutes worth of footage from its cut, the pacing issue could be remedied.
What may also alienate viewers is REBECCA‘s lack of explicit genre as well as its open-for-interpretation ending. It’s neither definitively horror nor thriller. However, there are many cool aspects in the film that really lends itself to that psychologically heavy Gothic horror feel. Maxim’s sleepwalking, the ghost of Rebecca haunting the narrator’s dreams, vines coming and pulling the narrator into the ground of Manderley; these are just a few of the haunting images we get to experience throughout the course of the film once we transition from sunny Monte Carlo to the foreboding Manderley. While not entirely horror, there are plenty of moments for horror and thriller levels to enjoy, especially if they are fans of the Gothic subgenre.
Ben Wheatley’s REBECCA is most definitely not Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In all honesty, though, they shouldn’t be compared. They are two separate adaptations that both warrant appreciation. While some may dislike the lack of definitive horror or thriller in this adaptation, the journey we are taken as we slip into the narrator’s recollection of her time at Manderley is an escapist doozy. Kristin Scott Thomas is a clear standout, but Lily James delivers one of her strongest performances. Carried by the performances, production design, score, and costume design, this adaptation of REBECCA has carved out its own memorable space for viewers to enjoy.
REBECCA will be released exclusively on Netflix on October 21, 2020.