“Rebecca” (2020) Review

Dir. Ben Wheatley; Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas

[1.5 out of 4 stars]

Bold (and perhaps foolish) is the director who wants to remake an Alfred Hitchcock film, but apparently Ben Wheatley is precisely that director. If you are going to remake a classic Hitchcock film from 1940 (based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name), there had better be a good reason: a way to update or modernize the film in a way that will resonate with today’s audience. Yet, Wheatley does not have that reason and fails at this task, leaving me wondering, why make this film at all?

The film follows the original plot, with a few startling changes: a young, unnamed lady’s companion (Lily James) is traveling in 1930s Europe with Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) when she meets the wealthy, recently-widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). In the 2020 version, the two fall in love as they drive through the lush countryside, laugh together, and have sex on the beach. (The novel and previous film portray their courtship in a darker way; he is a powerful aristocrat while she is helpless, lonely, and looking for a way out.) They get married, and he takes her back to England and his estate, Manderley. Our protagonist has no experience running such a property and feels lost. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the incisive housekeeper, is no help as she keeps reminding the new Mrs. de Winter how the old Mrs. de Winter would have done things: “There’s a way things are done at Manderley.” Maxim’s new wife begins to feel haunted by the ghost of Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca. Her monogram is everywhere, her way of doing things still reigns, and Maxim refuses to talk about her at all. “Us mere mortals couldn’t hope to compete,” says Maxim’s sister. The new Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca and begins a tortured downspiral that nearly ends in her suicide. After a series of harrowing plot twists, the 2020 film ends almost the same way that the 1940 version does: with the Manderley estate engulfed in flames after being set alight by Mrs. Danvers. In the earlier version, it’s a tragic symbol of the happy ending our protagonist will never get. But in Wheatley’s version, the narrative continues, with the couple globe-trotting in search of another estate to purchase. They awaken in Egypt to soft golden light, and the new Mrs. de Winter reflects peacefully that through the whole ordeal, she has learned “to save the one thing worth walking through flames for: love.” 

This vomit-inducing clichéd sweetness just completes the myriad of ways that Wheatley disregards the tone set in the first iteration in favor of a half-baked trite alternative. The reason the 1940 version is so successful is that Hitchcock, master of horror that he was, accurately latched onto those aspects of du Maurier’s novel, while Wheatley seems to have selected the details that he can piece together into a love story, with a few dramatic twists. The 1940 Rebecca retains the haunting aura of a ghost story, but Wheatley believes that an ornate house is eerie by itself, and adding a derelict seaside shack is all we need to set an ominous mood while only hinting at some characters’ sinister implications. It feels as though Wheatley is caught between the horror-esque themes of the original and actually wanting to make a period piece/love story, and as a result neither aspect is done satisfactorily. 

The story of Rebecca — as told by Hitchcock and du Maurier — achieves a compelling mixture of Gothic horror and romance: tense, emotional, and dark. My main problem with Wheatley’s version is how completely and utterly it misses that mark. To start, our protagonist does not seem to be a lonesome waif in need of rescuing. We are supposed to believe that she is hopeless and lost because a dog barks at her in the hotel lobby and she once drops her change on the floor in front of the maître d’ (oh, how embarrassing!) But unlike the previous heroines, she is well-read and knowledgeable, impressing Maxim with her knowledge of cars and prompting him to ask, “Where do you learn all this stuff?” At one point, Maxim warns, “I wouldn’t if I were you,” to which she cockily responds, “It’s just as well you’re not.” She is far too confident and smart for us to believe that she is desperately clinging onto any semblance of love. Maxim, for his part, is portrayed as witty in our first interaction with him. When Mrs. van Hopper asks our protagonist to have the maître d’ seat her next to Mr. de Winter, she converses with the maître d’ with Maxim standing right behind her. She doesn’t know who he is when he whispers cheekily to her that Mr. de Winter is such a bore. As such, their roles are completely different than they have been in previous tellings, to the detriment of anyone who has read or seen Rebecca before and, like me, watched this version looking for more of the same. Here, they send secret notes to one another through the hotel staff, and their scenes together are tender, lit by warm golden light and a soft haze. Their courtship is colorful and sensuous, not fraught with an unequal power dynamic. As such, it is difficult to dovetail into the Gothic drama that is supposed to follow, and the film does not fit together. 

In addition, the acting is nothing special. James spends most of the film breathing shakily, looking as if she is halfway to tears, and pressing herself against any couches or pillars that happen to be nearby. She is far too self-assured to come off as helpless or tormented. And Hammer is… well, Armie Hammer. He’s tall and handsome and would sweep any young woman off her feet, but possesses none of the gravitas that Laurence Olivier had in that role. His “famous temper,” as many characters call it, is supposed to be terrifying, but it is indicated by Hammer frowning slightly and speaking loudly while the shot cuts to a close-up. It carries no weight, and so when he tries to pull off foreboding lines like “all marriages have their secrets,” they fall flat. When your two leads (in a film that only has a few major characters) are both underwhelming, you know you’ve missed something. Thomas fares far better, with penetrating eyes and an ice-cold temperament. One of the only tolerable scenes is when she tells our protagonist how she and Maxim used to brush Rebecca’s hair every night, laughing about how much they loved it. Then she cuts her eyes at the new Mrs. de Winter and suddenly asks: “Does he brush your hair?” She seems to be the only actor who understands exactly what this story is supposed to be and where she fits within it.

Rebecca would have been better off if it had not taken on the name Rebecca. It’s a pretty, empty love story that could delight its viewers if that were all they were looking for. But because it is Rebecca, we expect the suspense and madness this narrative is supposed to be characterized by, while there is none here. Perhaps most exasperating is the myriad of ways that Wheatley could have successfully upgraded the film to make it resonate today. This is, after all, a story about a powerful, wealthy, authoritarian older man exerting control over a younger, inexperienced woman, and in the era of #MeToo, one would think there’s a lot Wheatley could have done with that. Instead, the result is a frustratingly ineffectual version of Rebecca that adds nothing to the canon whatsoever.

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