I haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
It’s an important note because the 1940 classic starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier – winner of that year’s Best Picture Oscar – was destined to loom large over any attempt to adapt Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel. Inviting comparisons to Hitchcock typically doesn’t bode well (ask Gus Van Sant). I wanted to give Ben Wheatley’s take on the story a shot without constantly referring back to the original.
Rebecca is the tale of a young woman (Lily James) who falls head over heels in love with Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a rich widower with a grand English estate named Manderley. The couple quickly marry and Maxim whisks her home to Manderley, where they are greeted with a Downton Abbey-style staff led by the stern Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Besides being a stranger in the big old house, the new Mrs. de Winter must also contend with the inescapable memory of her predecessor, the titular Rebecca. Everything about the woman is a mystery, especially her tragic death, which makes the long shadow she casts all the more suffocating for Mrs. de Winter. It soon becomes clear that the idyllic dream life she had hoped for is actually a nightmare.
The success of Rebecca (at least this version) hinges on the central romance between Maxim and Mrs. de Winter, and therefore Armie Hammer and Lily James. Their connection has to have a compelling hook: either they are so consumed by each other that it defies reason, or Maxim is so irresistible that his young bride is blinded to the sinister world he inhabits.
This couple reflects neither, or anything substantive. Both characters suffer from the presumption that vagueness is the same as mystery, especially Maxim. He isn’t alluring, or even interesting, and it defies logic that he could draw anyone into a quickie marriage. The only convincing reason would be if Mrs. de Winter was solely after him for his money, but her motivations and interests in the relationship are as underdeveloped as his. Neither have a strong enough sense of interiority to make us care about them, as individuals or a couple.
With so little on the page, Armie Hammer and Lily James are left in a creative wasteland. Hammer suffers the most: his performance is cold, disconnected, and unappealing, even when we are supposed to feel sympathy for him. Call Me By Your Name and even The Man from U.N.C.L.E. prove that he can be what Rebecca desperately needed, but Wheatley clearly didn’t know how to leverage his presence. James fares slightly better with more to do, but she also can’t transcend the limitations of her character. Hammer and James look good together, but have very little chemistry, leaving their romantic scenes feeling forced.
The foundational failure of the two main characters renders the rest of the film rather pointless. If we don’t really care about Mrs. de Winter, why should we care about the psychological terror she faces at the hands of Mrs. Danvers (as delightfully menacing as Kristin Scott Thomas is)? Even if we could muster up a dollop of interest in her misery, Ben Wheatley doesn’t build enough tension to register its impact. He relies heavily on Clint Mansell’s score to build the suspense, which ultimately rings hollow. There are some scenes that truly unsettle (again, courtesy of Scott Thomas), but they are infrequent and diluted by seemingly random moments or story threads that lack pay off.
If anything, Rebecca is beautifully rendered. It is a lavish production, and Wheatley knows how to capture the investment. Some of the most interesting images in the film are of the waves crashing against the cliff side, or the ornate splendor of Manderley’s interior. If Rebecca were meant to be a two-hour long commercial for the English countryside, it would be a resounding success.
Sadly, it’s not. Honestly, it’s not clear what the point of a Rebecca remake was in the first place. The film doesn’t offer a unique take on the original story, or a comment on the time period that would resonate today. Apart from some striking imagery that wouldn’t be capable 80 years ago, the only thing the new Rebecca offers is a reason to watch Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
Chances are, you’ll prefer the original.