Directed by: Ben Wheatley
A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.
Every now and then somebody decides to recreate a classic and there’s no denying Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is just that. If you only read one chapter in one book then the first chapter of Rebecca should be it, Du Maurier is the undisputed champion of powerful imagery through descriptive writing and this is a prime example. If you’ve never read the book or you’re unfamiliar with her works then you’re sorely missing out. You’re also unlikely to have a go at turning it into a film but I’d hazard a guess this may well be the case for Ben Wheatley’s remake.
The film begins with a nod to the book as Lily James narrates the opening few lines. As with many stories, the beginning of Rebecca is incredibly important as it should create a telling forecast of what is to come, leaving us with a sense of excitement and intrigue over what circumstances led our character here. Du Maurier took us on a beautifully captivating journey through her dream and to recreate that, all that needed to be done here was to read what the majority of the audience already know word by word. Instead, as is the case for the whole of this film, the scene is so incredibly brief that we barely even notice it has begun before we’re transported to the next bright and sunny moment.
The story of Rebecca is a dark one. We follow a plain and shy woman living in the shadow of her rude and aloof husband’s late wife, Rebecca. This movie fails to achieve any of this. Instead, it’s bright and colourful where it should be dark and moody. Armie Hammer’s Maxim de Winter is a stylish and attentive lover where he should be blunt, distant and proper. His early scenes paint his character in such a way that it seems hilarious when he does later try to assert some authority in the role. Less like a man of authority and more like Basil Faulty in charge of Downton Abbey. Lily James’ new Mrs de Winter should be a character intimidated by shadows; Rebecca’s and her own. In this she’s curious, daring and at one point even goes so far as to fire Kristen Scott Thomas’ Mrs Danvers! (I would too; she should be grim, strict and terrifying but with this portrayal of the character in charge at Manderley it’s no wonder everything’s such a mess.)
Believe it or not, those are just the little things. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of Rebecca was a success. Why? Because Hitchcock’s mastery of creating suspense perfectly matched Du Maurrier’s intentions in the book. Of course, filmed in 1940, it’s a little dated to say the least and watching it now seems as if the cast were paid a bonus for speaking the dialogue as quickly as possible. But, given all the might of modern cinema this latest reincarnation of Rebecca is the exact opposite, seemingly racing through every moment, completely missing any opportunity to create suspense in order to get to the next piece of dialogue as quickly as possible.
If you can bring yourself to watch the entire movie I suspect you’ll be baffled by much of it because it completely fails to make you feel the emotions you need to understand the twists in the story. The ending differs quite a lot from the book and from Hitchcock’s version too but make no mistake, originality doesn’t improve it. Reading the book, you need no explanation because you absorb the beginning, engage with the middle and love the ending. Hitchcock’s ending, to give it a fairer comparison, is perhaps a little fast but much simpler. This, Wheatley’s version, if you’ll pardon the pun, is completely lost at sea.
Ironic really, that Rebecca is ultimately a tale of somebody never able to live up to a predecessor. Funnily enough, this film didn’t come close.