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‘Rebecca’ Returns to Life Breathing Stale Air

Daphne Du Maurier’s novel gets a bland adaptation that champions dull romance over Gothic elements.
Lily James and Armie Hammer in Rebecca
By  · Published on October 22nd, 2020

Remaking a classic, beloved film, or making a new adaptation of an equally beloved novel, can be a daunting and thankless task. Do you try to match the greatness that preceded your film and hope audiences don’t find it to be pointless, or do you take the bold step of mixing things up in fresh ways for fresh eyes and risk upsetting the purists? The filmmakers behind Netflix‘s new adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier‘s classic novel of Gothic suspense/romance, Rebecca, choose the road less traveled here with a third option — they eliminate everything that makes the story work and instead deliver the blandest romance imaginable.

A young woman (Lily James) working as an assistant to a wealthy widow meets a strapping young man named Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while on duty in Monte Carlo. They share a precious first meeting and quickly become inseparable, and when her employer threatens to cut the trip short Maxim solves the dilemma by proposing. The new Mrs. de Winter soon finds herself at the man’s grand estate, Manderley, but her new life comes with unexpected baggage. Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, died under mysterious circumstances, and the house still holds her presence in the form of memory, guilt, and unanswered questions. How did she die? Did Maxim kill her? Why is Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the head of Manderley’s household staff, so damn icy?

The answers come soon enough, but by then it’s only Mrs. de Winter who gives a hoot as audiences will quite possibly be lulled into indifference.

The basic synopsis for Ben Wheatley‘s new adaptation of Rebecca sounds familiar enough, but while the structure remains the film is a softer, far less interesting experience. It jettisons the Gothic suspense/horror and deeply flawed characters of both Du Maurier’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation, and in their place sits a house that could just as easily be found in an episode of Downton Abbey with the slight romantic entanglements to match. The script, initially adapted by Jane Goldman before being worked over by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse, instead wants viewers to root for these kids in love while giving very little heed to the nightmare of his past and their present. Manderley no longer hangs heavy over the film’s protagonist at which point you can’t help but wonder if the tale they’re telling needed to be an adaptation of Rebecca at all.

The novel and the 1940 film find their lasting power in the mystery and the relationships between the leads. Maxim’s hold over his new wife is a power play, a reactionary move after being emotionally and romantically hobbled by Rebecca, and it’s evident in everything from their age difference — clear in both the book and in the effort made to add years between Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine — to his willingness to continue suffering the whims of his dead ex. Neither half of the couple are happy or in love, but they’re content in the illusion for their own reasons ranging from greed to class to simple resentment. Wheatley’s film instead insists that these two not only are in love but that they deserve to live happily ever after. That’s fine, but that’s not Rebecca.

There was a decade age gap between Olivier and Fontaine, and they added streaks to his hair to make him appear even older, but Hammer and James are only three years apart and look it. With that element erased, the division between Maxim and his new wife comes down to class only. Even there, though, the film fumbles and fails to create a clear portrait of the new Mrs. de Winter’s awkward presence. Where Fontaine sells the fear and uncomfortable feeling of not belonging, James struts in with unwarranted confidence. The single exception is an abrupt shift where she briefly appears unstable in the face of it all, but she quickly rights herself in unconvincing fashion.

The mystery behind Rebecca’s death hew closer here to Du Maurier’s novel than Hitchcock’s film, but what should be added character weight instead is neutered and glossed over. What’s an act of attempted murder in the face of true love? Not much, as it turns out, and while a dogged detective pursues a (rightful) conviction against Maxim the film works hard to ensure that viewers stay firmly on the side of the couple who, gosh darn it, just want to bask and bone in the warmth of their wealth and sun-dappled love. That’s well enough for them, but the rest of us are stuck with bland characters facing minor struggles on their route to a well-earned vacation and a happy ending.

There’s no denying that Rebecca is an attractive film at times with Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose capturing some gorgeous European locales and exteriors in the film’s first act, but they drop the ball somewhat upon returning to Manderley. This is where the story’s Gothic nature should shine, metaphorically speaking, but instead the estate takes on the dull glaze of its occupants. Thank goodness then for Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers, as not only does she appear to be the only member of cast or crew to have read the damn novel (or seen Hitchcock’s film), but she also manages the film’s singular Gothic persona. She carries a dark aura around her fueled by rage, grief, and intensity, and it’s a performance that echoes Judith Anderson’s masterful work without losing Thomas’ own charisma.

Rebecca has been adapted for the screen, both big and small, numerous times, and this latest endeavor will no doubt find its audience. Performances beyond Thomas and a fun Sam Riley (as the questionable Jack Favell) are inoffensive, and it’s attractive at times, but when the end comes round and the infamous opening line is repeated with a lame, feel good twist it’s more than clear that this isn’t the story and characters we know and love. It’s Rebecca for people who don’t want to be challenged or made to feel, and that’s no Rebecca at all.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.