Now, what could possibly go wrong here? A great book to serve as source material, a good cast to play some iconic literary roles, a well-regarded director, a writer with some hits in the not-too-distant past, good composer, good cinematographer, and the largess, financial and editing wise, of Netflix to back it all up. Really, what could possibly go wrong here? What’s that? There’s already been an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s iconic novel? Alfred Hitchcock you say? Best Picture? Era-defining? Hard to imagine anyone topping it?
Oh dear, oh dear. One has to have some sympathy for Ben Wheatley and the task that he had chosen for himself here. Of course Hitchcock does not have a moratorium on certain works, and it is perfectly possible, especially 80 years (80!) removed from the release of his Rebecca, for somebody else to have a go. But Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a masterpiece in psychological thrill-making and horror, would have cast a shadow over this production very much in the way that the first Mrs de Winter casts a shadow over the second. Do you try and do things completely differently to mark yourself out, or do you do a bit of aping? It’s important to evaluate 2020’s Rebecca on its own merits first of course, but you can’t outrun Hitchcock. Was Wheatley able to take the job and make something great out of it, or is this a case of “Been done as good as it can be already”?
A lady’s companion (Lily James) meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while on holiday and, after a whirlwind romance, the two are married and heading home to his palatial estate of Manderley. There, the new Mrs de Winter must contend with Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of the household staff, who remains slavishly devoted to the memory of Rebecca, de Winter’s deceased first wife. The spectre of Rebecca, whose death occurred under mysterious circumstances, and the pressures of running Manderley soon begin to get to the second Mrs de Winter, with Mrs Danvers there to push her along the road to madness.
So, let’s pretend for at least a little while that there have been no other adaptations of Rebecca, and take a look at Ben Wheatley’s film from that lone perspective. It deserves that much at the very least, the same as any effort to remake or redo something. The final verdict isn’t what he would like I’m sure: his Rebecca is a film that I feel struggles throughout, between a jumping narrative, some weaknesses in script and a lack of pull from the lead. Given Wheatley’s back catalogue of varied head-wreckers, his Rebecca is surprisingly humdrum.
I like Lily James a lot as an actress, she being the best part of the forgettable Yesterday, enjoyable in Baby Driver and a delight in Downton Abbey. If you were to ask me who would be a good choice to play the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, the second Mrs de Winter, I wouldn’t object to James being very high up on the list. But she struggles here. The role requires someone to be docile, weak and out-of-her-depth in the beginning, but to slowly become a stronger and stronger person. James has the first part down very well, but the rest never really comes: she spends the film largely as a passenger to the events unfolding and, excepting an epilogue scene that seems like a sop to the idea instead of showing it happening properly, she never becomes that strong character forged by the abuse of Mrs Danvers and the strain of Rebecca de Winter’s memory.
The other two of the central three aren’t up to much either. Hammer doesn’t have it in him to play Maxim the way he should be played, with his charming demonour at the beginning seeming very bland (his suits are more noticeable than his performance) and his later anger/distance coming off more as unemotional and, well, boring: his delivery of “I want to marry you, you little fool” needs some grand Clark Gable, but comes out as uninterested. A written note by him, “Come for a drive” has more energy than any of his attempts at flirtation. He has no spark in this performance, and he and James don’t really click the way that they have to. Thomas is better in the iconic Danvers role, getting across a bit of the complex psychology at play in a character that is variously thought to be deranged, a repressed lesbian or literally possessed by the spirit of the title character depending on what analysis you read. But even she has her limits, and the quiet creeping intensity that I think the part needs is absent. If James and Hammer like spark, Collins lacks bite.
But the material is not what it should be either. Rebecca is broadly faithful to the page, and perhaps a little too much: in its devotion to bring de Maurier’s novel to life it succumbs to some structural problems that weren’t an inevitability. I talk about how in the final act of the thing it suddenly becomes a courtroom drama, then something akin to an espionage thriller, having started out as a romantic love story and then gone through a phase as a psychological thriller/gothic horror. The tonal shifts and changes in arena aren’t exactly to the film’s benefit, and you feel like perhaps a dropping of the coroner courts procedures in favour of something a bit more intimate in the Manderley mansion might have been better. And yet, despite having that faithfulness, Wheatley still can’t across the changes in the narrator, so it’s kind of a double fault. When he makes the odd, small, change is when the film comes to life the most, when it feels the most active.
The script, from a few different names but primarily Jane Goldman it seems, is hard to evaluate: it’s difficult to tell if the cast are having trouble delivering it, or if the words themselves are the problem. The narrator and Maxim’s love affair early on seems oddly underwritten, the back-and-forth between Danvers and the narrator is a bit to limp to get across the extent of the adversarial nature of their relationship, and I found most of the last act stuff, wherein a good few extra characters suddenly arrive prominently into the narrative, to be distracting and clunky in their wordplay. And even when the novel provides the material for the script directly – Yes, that famous opening line is narrated here – it’s delivered in a manner where it seems like the person delivering it, usually James, isn’t being directed properly, lacking the right kind of nuance.
It is in the visual side of things that Wheatley’s Rebecca most comes to life. Here he has the opportunity to firmly stamp his own vision on the novel, and we do get some interesting visual set-pieces, most notably the infamous ball that forms the crux of the story’s midpoint. Wheatley turns it, and Mrs de Winter’s trauma at the event, into what looks like an almost drug-fueled delirium, the party becoming a bizarre bacchanal where she floats from the upper class guests arrayed in masks to the servants down below in whose party she very much does not belong, out into a lawn arrayed with ghoulish fireworks. This comes ahead of the famous scene where Mrs Danvers tries to convince the protagonist to kill herself, and it forms a decent prelude. It’s the most quintessentially Wheatley scene in the whole thing. A nightmare sequence where the narrator gets devoured by brambles chasing after Maxim is as gothic as the film gets, and it generally is able to capture the contrast between the larger space of Manderley and the claustrophobic feeling that it naturally engenders: precise and ordered, just enough to hide the many dark and ugly secrets of its inhabitants past and present.
There are other tricks too though. The whole first act in sun-kissed Monte Carlo feels strangely staged in a way, with the clothes, and the cars and the locations, but in an effective manner, a manner that makes it seem more like a photo-shoot of a memory than something that actually happened. A running theme of underwater shots is evident, and Wheatley is able to get across the haunting nature of the sea near Manderley and the secrets it keeps, using the location as an unlikely, but appropriate place to essentially end his film. The grubby seaside cabin and local village also play their part, in making the world of that Mrs de Winter has stepped into a little less nice than it initially appeared to be. There are other shots, like aerial views of old timey cars zipping around the countryside, that seem taken straight from Downton Abbey, but that can be forgiven.
And now of course we must talk agbout about the gulf between 1940 and 2020. Fair or not, we have to make some kind of comparison. And it suffices to say that Joan Fontaine, Laurence Oliver and Judith Anderson run figurative rings around Wheatley and his film. Hitchcock’s effort didn’t have the same advances in cinematography or opportunities for location shooting, but it had great performances, oddles of suspense and intrigue in every nook and cranny of every scene. The interplay between the narrator and Mrs Danvers, Oliver’s forcefully detached Maxim, the slow-boil build and the thrilling finale, they all do better than what Wheatley tries. His Rebecca is more gothic horror than psychological I suppose, but when your cast isn’t performing and the script isn’t being brought to life, it doesn’t really matter. Even in the specific details, like the score, 1940 trumps 2020, with Clint Mansell minimalists tension ratcheting music forgettable, and nothing against Franz Waxman’s iconic themes. Hitchcock’s version, which remains one of his very best, is the superior adaptation. I don’t take any great relish in saying that, and an 80 year gap is more than enough for someone to give this property another go. But we might have to wait another 80 for a better one.
In conclusion, I have to give Ben Wheatley credit for trying, but trying doesn’t cut it. His Rebecca has ambition in its visuals, the only real moments when he eclipses Hitchcock. Everywhere else, it falls down. Whether the cast are under-performing or are being poorly directed, they aren’t up to the level of the material. In following the beats of the novel so precisely, Rebecca feels tonally fluid to too great a degree. The script, in combination with the issues with delivery, is hum drum. It’s a curiosity really, the kind of feature that will probably find its place in a sort of visual form of “additional reading” when it comes to it’s 1940 predecessor: file it under “what not to do”. Just like the narrator is the second-best Mrs de Winter to some, this is the second best Rebecca. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).