The dreamlike qualities of Daphne du Maurier’s 1930s bestseller Rebecca and its celebrated Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation are obvious even in a basic description of the premise. A nameless young woman meets an older, recently widowed aristocrat while working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. After two weeks of romance, he marries her, and brings her to his estate, Manderley, where an entire wing has been preserved in the memory of his first wife, Rebecca. From the beginning, we know that Manderley is no more; it’s a ruin that is haunting the heroine as she starts to tell the story. There’s an eventual twist (several, actually) that turns this perfectly distilled gothic fairy tale into a more conventional piece of early-20th-century suspense, with incriminating notes, doctors, and blackmail. But the arc remains one of lost innocence, beginning in romantic fantasy and ending in a darker splurge. Hitchcock turned this into his first major work on the subject of morbid obsession (and the only one of his films to win the Best Picture Oscar). Now, English director Ben Wheatley has liberated it from those pesky ambiguities and turned it into an inane drama.
This Rebecca is billed as a new adaptation of the novel, but since the Hitchcock version is largely faithful to du Maurier, much of it plays like a scene-for-scene remake, with tweaks and additions to account for today’s apparently less adventurous tastes in old dark house stories. The first obvious change is that the unworldly and unnamed protagonist (Lily James) and the widowed Maxim de Winer (Armie Hammer) are now basically the same age (though Hammer is actually older than Laurence Olivier was when he played the role in the Hitchcock version).
Their courtship unfolds more or less as before. They meet at a hotel while she is traveling with her employer, the unbearable grand dame Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Lunch in the hotel restaurant soon turns to daily sightseeing trips in Maxim’s Bentley. Although his wife has been dead for less than a year, Maxim proposes, and after an offscreen honeymoon, he brings his new bride to Manderley. There, she soon encounters the story’s famous villain, the manipulative head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (an icy Kristin Scott Thomas), who remains loyal to the previous mistress of the house.
Reminders of the beautiful and refined Rebecca seem to follow the second Mrs. de Winter (the only name ever given to the protagonist). In an effort to distinguish itself from previous versions, this Rebecca has dressed its characters in the height of mid-1930s fashion; the formerly cobwebby untouched wing of Manderley is now spotlessly clean and Art Deco. At one point, the heroine watches Maxim sleepwalk through its door. All the subtext is now literal, which means that there isn’t any now, at all. From the beginning, Wheatley does try to tweak a thing or two. We’re first beholden to elliptically edited sequences — a Wheatley trademark indebted to Nicolas Roeg, in particular Roeg’s own de Maurier adaptation, 1973’s Don’t Look Now. The thing is, in that film Roeg used disorienting cutting to offset the splendor of its Venice setting. Here, when Wheatley fragments things in Rebecca, it’s just more distracting than beguiling — a strategy in search of a purpose. With his horror-thriller roots in tact, Wheatley even attempts a few hallucinatory horror-movie images: submerged figures, creeping CGI vines, and a deep-red nightmare. Yet, these are once again, very literal, as if substituting for a more pervasive lack of atmosphere. While Julian Day’s costume design and Sarah Greenwood’s production design give a valent effort, the movie’s handsomeness is mostly just bland, an example of how the gleaming Netflix house aesthetic — which is eternally calibrated with streaming in mind — doesn’t always fit with a project’s best interests.
Nonetheless, the basic structure of the story is intact; some of its uncanniness even manages to survive Wheatley’s confused direction. Maybe the only truly surprising thing about this Rebecca is how tame it is, even when compared to an adaptation that had to change a major plot point to abide by the Production Code. The screenplay (by Jane Goldman, Anna Waterhouse, and Joe Shrapnel) goes to some lengths to neuter the psychosexual complexes of the characters, and given that these complexes are most of the story, the film inevitably descends into incoherence once the question of what really happened to Rebecca is stated out loud. While Scott Thomas, Dowd, and Sam Riley (as Rebecca’s shady cousin, Jack Favell) get fun one-note roles, James and Hammer are largely tasked with looking unhappy in handsome clothes (with James doing alright with her character’s spooked uncertainty, while the broody anguish needed for Maxim is seemingly out of Hammer’s reach). Anyone who manages to invest in these characters will be rewarded with an egregious happy ending that has been tacked on the fiery conclusion — which, like everything else, has been wrung through the de-ambiguifier. At its core (in the original roots that is), Rebecca is a drama about the all-consuming nature of obsession, and a woman whose spooky charisma and sheer force of personality were enough to control the people around her in life and in death. Her grip is unbreakable, but the movie that’s been (re)made in her honor is almost entirely disposable. There’s nothing to hold on to here. It’s less that Wheatley’s reach exceeds his grasp than that he doesn’t really seem to be reaching in the first place. Stranded somewhere between re-creation and reinvention, Rebecca is a film lost in artistic no man’s land, both scattered and turgid, simultaneously overcompensating and disposably under-delivering.
Rebecca is available to stream on Netflix