Last night I dreamt I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca again. It seems to me that it is difficult to adapt something that already has such a definitive adaptation, and sometimes it is okay to not even try.
Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker who is making a name for himself with his wildly diverse filmography. He is bound to no genre or type of narrative, yet there is a distinct artistic flare that can be found in most of his films. However, his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is lacking in any defining personality or signature style which is needed to warrant another attempt at a story that already has such a resonant adaptation.
Adaptations are never one-and-done attempts, there are many popular literary works that have had multiple attempts, and Rebecca is no different. However, Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the famed gothic romance is a prime example of a single attempt becoming so beloved and great that all other attempts are bound to draw comparison. What Hitchcock provided in his adaptation (although not entirely faithful to the book due to the Hollywood Production Code) is a distinct filmmaking style that lent itself to the eerie gothic elements of the story and the strained romance at the centre. The screenwriters also provided a whip smart script that balanced what was written in the book with the flashy dialogue made famous in this classic era of cinema. Additionally, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine were decidedly excellent casting choices for their respective roles, and lent a great deal of personality to their performances.
This latest iteration of Rebecca is very bland, despite great effort made to make a handsome production. The characters come off as hollow, and unfortunately highlight how great Fontaine and Olivier were playing the unlucky-in-love couple. At the heart of Rebecca is the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s relationship, and with a narrative that is oh so familiar to us now, a key element in engaging the audience is to have well cast and interesting characters.
Lily James, who is more than capable of playing the bumbling and naive narrator, is awfully misguided here. Whether it be the script or direction from Wheatley, James does not quite nail the naivety needed for our narrator. The growth and hardening that the character undergoes is stifled by the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ type characterisation that overtakes James’ appearance and performance. She is a tad bit too poised for a young woman who is meant to be shy and self-conscious.
Then there is Armie Hammer’s Maxim, who must have had any charisma he had sucked up by that mustard yellow suit he is seen in throughout the film (which was certainly a choice). The feeling that Maxim is miscast is exacerbated by Hammer’s tepid British accent and the presence of a far better choice, Sam Reid, who plays Rebecca’s side beau Jack Favell. Part of the appeal of Maxim from the Hitchcock film and the book is there is a sense of uncertainty about him, something akin to danger. However, Wheatley and Hammer seem uninterested in giving Maxim that depth and instead he comes across as a grown man prone to childish fits. This is further compounded upon with the emphasis of the sexual attraction between Maxim and his new bride. Sadly, the lack of chemistry highlights just how dreadfully uninteresting James and Hammer are as our leads.
It is Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers who is the true standout, as she is seemingly the only one who knows what needs to be done. Although, that obsessive semi-queer devotion to Rebecca is far more subtle, it is still present. Thomas carries us through the film balancing the cracks in Danvers cordial facade, the danger she poses to the new bride, and the utter desperate devotion to Rebecca. It is in her performance that we get a shadow of what could have been with this adaptation.
Technically the film is stunning, a considerable feat if only the script and performances could meet that standard. The choice in having the scenery be so picturesque at the beginning works best when the setting changes to the infamous Manderley, where the colour palette is considerably darker and grimmer. The contrast is a helpful means to visualise the shift in the narrative. But that distinctly gothic look that is needed to sustain the narrative is missing, and the film blunders into technicolor melodrama territory, which doesn’t quite work with the narrative.
Rebecca misses the mark in so many ways that the parts that actually hit get overshadowed by what doesn’t. It is unfair to judge the film based on a prior example, but that is just the nature of the beast. Hitchcock’s film and the numerous gothic romances that have filled the years between his film and this recent adaptation set the bar very, very high. Rebecca is greatly disadvantaged by not only that adaptation but also films that borrow elements of the story, such as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. del Toro’s 2015 horror gothic romance starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as stand-ins for the second Mrs. de Winter, Maxim and Mrs. Danvers is an example of a film taking on familiar ideas (and in this case plot beats) and transforming it into its own thing.
Despite being nice to look at, this iteration of Rebecca fails to do anything interesting with the narrative. It cannot stand out from the abundance of great gothic romances that have borrowed heavily from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and unfortunately, cannot escape Hitchcock’s shadow.
Rebecca is available to stream now exclusively on Netflix
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.