Somewhere between the transcendent Alfred Hitchcock original and a total misfire lies Ben Wheatley’s shiny new “Rebecca.” An innocuous adaptation of the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, the latest Net-flick should reignite debate over the reasons why certain properties are exhumed while others aren’t. For something like Hitch’s 1940 classic, a decent justification might be that the new version fleshes out latent meanings in a more satisfying way—the queer relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca for instance, or Maxim’s masculine toxicity. Instead, Wheatley plays it safe, and throws star power and sumptuous imagery our way as reason enough for his pale, uninventive iteration of the classic gothic horror. It goes down easy enough thanks to Lily James and the already-delicious plot, but Wheatley’s imitation fumbles when it matters most.
A young, nameless woman (Lily James) meets Prince Charming in Monte Carlo, but her rags-to-riches fantasy fulfillment is riddled with psychological turmoil and second wife syndrome. When we meet our girl, she’s mild-mannered, kind of frumpy, and quivering with insecurities, nourished by her insufferable employer, Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), to whom she serves as a “lady’s companion,” and the severe upper-crust world of countless rules and expectations she finds herself in—yet also excluded from. Sweet relief comes when the strapping Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) takes her under his wing and whisks her away on a scenic drive. One marvelous day turns into a week-long courtship—a richly-colored, sun-bathed fantasy through the lens of Wheatley’s regular cinematographer, Laurie Rose.
Each morning, Maxim leaves little notes with the hotel wait-staff for his new beau: “A drive?” “A stroll?” “Lunch?” The gesture is as enigmatic and unpredictable as the man himself, but our heroine fawns over the romance of it all. Childlike in many ways, she’s prone to nervous weeping, and gets giddy and googly-eyed over Maxim’s tiniest romantic signals. When Mrs. Van Hopper threatens to relocate to New York out of disdain for her ward’s canoodling, Maxim proposes marriage: “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool.” He grips his naive lover in a passionate embrace reminiscent of some of the great kisses in classic cinema. Yet the moment betrays Wheatley’s superficial grip on the power of “Rebecca.” The line is an iconic one, and Hitchcock’s version stands in sharp contrast. Olivier says the words off-screen in a troublingly off-handed, and patronizing manner—rather than assuage, this confirms the new Mrs. De Winter’s insecurities around her new husband. What are Maxim’s motives? What does he see in her—a plain, working-class nobody? And is he still in love with his first wife? Wheatley opts for the money-shot, in short, and loses sight of the complex psychological constellation that holds the drama in place and gives it its undercurrent of simmering dread. The intrigue feels obvious and plainly-stated in comparison to the prototype.
Once in Manderlay, the new Mrs. De Winter’s doubts intensify. We shift from the bright honeymoon to the dreary grey color palette of the intimidating, indifferent estate. Maxim appears uninterested, and everyone our heroine meets is stunned by his choice of bride, who seems to be completely the opposite of the first Mrs. De Winter, a worldly woman, and a renown hostess. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), is the cruelest of them all. She loved Rebecca, yet the eroticism of their relationship is muted under Wheatley’s direction, which emphasizes the character’s ghoulish notoriety at the expense of her depth. One suspects a “Ratched”-style spin-off series is in the works.
Lily James’ performance offers the only interesting update on the original. Sweet and fawn-like, she certainly resembles a young Joan Fontaine, Hollywood’s first Mrs. De Winter, but James brings something more sensual and unhinged to the role. She plays the beautiful naif struggling to see herself as worthy of this fantasy world thrust upon her (something she’s done before with “Cinderella” in a more kid-friendly format), but she’s also a warm and inviting presence that breaks down Maxim’s defenses. The performance grows sloppy and over-baked when Danvers’ begins tormenting the young woman, and when the movie shifts to its final act—a courtroom drama that unveils what really happened to Rebecca—James too abruptly transforms into a new, more confident woman, as if she always had it in her.
Part of the tragedy of the new Mrs. De Winter is that she comes to define herself in relation to her husband (we only know her by one name, after all). She struggles throughout the film to find a suitable role within his milieu, and her efforts backfire when she attempts to model herself after the singular Rebecca. Rebecca’s name is seemingly everywhere, uttered by everyone, and yet our protagonist remains nameless. Unlike Fontaine, James isn’t convincingly pliable and identity-less, perhaps because the actress maintains a fiery core even in her weakest moments. Thus her journey is more of a child learning to become a mother (to the ultimately brittle Maxim).
Choosing Hammer to fill the shoes of Laurence Olivier never seemed like a good idea, yet his past roles indicate that the actor excels at playing Maxim-adjacent characters: the mystery man with a soft spot (“Call Me By Your Name“) and the fancy asshole whose overbearing demeanor masks an inner derangement (“The Social Network,” “Sorry to Bother You“). In “Rebecca,” we never know if the heir to Manderlay is about to kiss or kill his new wife—it’s part of what makes her journey so thorny. But in committing to the character’s unreadability, Hammer’s performance feels too blank and distant. By the end, Maxim doesn’t feel any more human than he did in the beginning. It’s a bit like how the movie feels as a whole: it’s got the ingredients, but none of the personality. [C+]
“Rebecca” premieres on Netflix October 21.