The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - REBECCA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - REBECCA

rebecca review
A young bride finds herself contending with the memory of her husband's late wife.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd

rebecca poster

There are two types of movie remakes. Most prevalent, particularly in these current risk averse times, are those which are made purely for commercial reasons, to cash in on an audience's familiarity with a pre-existing property - think of all those awful remakes of '80s horror classics that came out around a decade ago. Then there are those filmmaker led remakes, where, naively or not, modern directors wish to pay respectful tribute to the movies that inspired them. We had a wave of these in the '80s - Cronenberg's The Fly, Carpenter's The Thing, Schrader's Cat People et al - and regardless of their critical, artistic or commercial success, none of them were made for cynical reasons, and they all brought something new to the table, evoking the spirit of the original films while slotting comfortably into their era.

Based on his career to date, Ben Wheatley doesn't seem like the sort of filmmaker to take on any old assignment for the sake of a job. While he's made a point in interviews of distancing his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca from the 1940 Hitchcock film, it's impossible to erase the previous version from your mind. Many filmmakers have attempted to remake Hitchcock, but the only one not to embarrass themselves in doing so was Hitchcock himself with his second go at The Man Who Knew Too Much. "Yes, but this isn't a remake of Hitchcock's movie, it's another adaptation of the novel!" Sorry, but that's not really how these things work, now is it? Mirroring the plot of Rebecca itself, Wheatley's film is haunted by the ghost of the much admired previous version it hopes we won't think about, but in this case the ghost wins. There's so much at play here on a meta level that a behind the scenes documentary about the making of Wheatley's Rebecca might be a better version of Rebecca than this pretty but pointless film.

rebecca review

Du Maurier's novel has been adapted several times for screens big and small, but if its plot feels so well-trodden at this point it's probably down to how often it's been reworked, most recently by Guillermo del Toro with Crimson Peak, which is essentially a Rebecca riff in which the ghost is made literal. Rebecca tells the story of an unnamed young woman (Lily James) who falls in love with Maxime de Winter (Armie Hammer), a handsome and heartbroken millionaire attempting to move on after the suicide of his wife, the titular Rebecca. Despite her lowly status as lady's companion to an obnoxious American society toff (Ann Dowd), the young woman finds herself the new bride of Maxime, taking on the role of the second Mrs De Winter. On arrival at Manderley, the sprawling English country estate Maxime calls home, the second Mrs De Winter (whom I'll refer to as MDW2 from here on) finds herself undermined at every turn by Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the estate's head housekeeper, whose loyalty to the first Mrs De Winter seems to border on obsession.

Wheatley's film impresses most when it's attempting to forge its own path and escape the shadow of the Hitchcock film. As you would expect, this version is in colour, but a lot of thought has been put into making a colourful film, rather than merely one shot in colour. Cinematographer Laurie Rose and the team of production and costume designers combine to create a sumptuously vivid depiction of an era we wrongly think of as monochrome, thanks to black and white films and photographs shaping our thoughts of the '30s. Colour gives Wheatley one advantage over Hitchcock in a key scene involving a red dress, the impact of which never quite landed how Hitchcock probably would have liked (given the producer's tinkering, 1940s Rebecca is as much a David O Selznick picture as a Hitchcock movie). Wheatley occasionally plays up the camp aspects of British aristocratic eccentricity, and as you might expect, injects elements of folk-horror, anachronistically scoring montages to British folk-rockers Pentangle and adding a nightmarish dance sequence that evokes The Wicker Man.

rebecca review

But such garnish proves ultimately superficial, as for the most part this Rebecca adds nothing to fully justify its existence, and its one key difference works against it. Hitchcock was shackled by the production code, forcing him to change a certain aspect of Maxime's character to make him less morally ambiguous. Here, Wheatley returns somewhat to the more darker Maxime of the novel, but this makes him all the more difficult to warm to, and it's even harder for us to accept the goody two shoes MDW2 standing by him in the final act. It doesn't help that Hammer is miscast, woefully stiff throughout. We never feel any of the psychological torment Laurence Olivier convinced us of in the Hitchcock film - Hammer's Maxime just comes off as a spoilt, petulant brat, and it's impossible to root for his marriage to MDW2, whom we simply wish would turn and run as far away from Manderley as possible.

Conversely, James is excellent, playing MDW2 like a shivering wounded bird in the palm of a human she hopes plans to heal her, but might just as well crush her in his grip. Scott Thomas is a ridiculously sexy choice for Mrs Danvers (Why are there no roles for us uggos anymore?), but her sultry presence does liven up the proceedings whenever she appears. She reminds me of Gale Sondergaard, who always managed to exude sex appeal despite being cast in unflattering roles later in her career.

rebecca review

The trouble with Wheatley's Rebecca is that we keep forgetting about the first Mrs De Winter until someone mentions her, or until we see the letter 'R' embroidered on a hanky or emblazoned on stationary. Here, MDW2 isn't so much contending with a ghost as feeling insecure in the presence of a very sexy and worldly housekeeper. In Hitchcock's film, Rebecca is a spectral presence we feel throughout the rooms of Manderley. In Wheatley's, she's simply someone people occasionally speak about.

Rebecca is on Netflix from October 21st.

2020 movie reviews