Image Credit: Netflix
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kirsten Scott-Thomas
Running time: 2 hr 1
When Daphne du Maurier penned Rebecca in 1938, she intended it to be a mystery thriller but adamantly “not a ghost story” or a glossy romance. What she does so beautifully, as her editor Norman Collins wrote, is pitch a brilliant “sense of atmosphere and suspense”. Unfortunately, Rebecca’s director Ben Wheatley sabotages both elements by insincerely translating them into Hollywood glamour. Rebecca is a memoir of our protagonist, whose identity is famously eclipsed by her title as the posthumous “Mrs. de Winter”. Its horrors are cerebral rather than visceral, for what haunts the protagonist is not a ghoul, but a tumultuous pressure to fill the shoes of her new husband’s deceased wife, Rebecca, who was apparently so ineffably ethereal that, she is recalled as a “beautiful creature” rather than a human.
Set in the 1930s, the film opens into the crisp scenery of Monte Carlo, where we are introduced to Lily James as the gawkish lead, working as a lady’s companion to a socialite named Mrs Van Hopper. She catches the eyes of Maxim de Winter, a wealthy widower from Cornwall, who promptly invites her for a posh breakfast; she takes full advantage of this by ordering oysters. So when the handsome Englishman proposes, it’s a no-brainer to choose a life of ladyship over her lousy patron. Van Hopper casts something of a curse on the new Mrs de Winter, which torments her throughout the plot: “He's only marrying you because he doesn't want to go on living in that big old house with her ghost!” she declares, to the oblivious squeak of a reply: “I don’t believe in ghosts!”. Our new protagonist doesn’t believe in ghosts but believes that oysters are an acceptable choice for breakfast. Ok.
As such, you will find the script is filled with Wheatley’s futile and frivolous directorial additions.
Ironically, when the narrator laments about bottling a memory “like scent... you could open it. It’d be like living the moment all over again”, she unknowingly describes her new home, Manderley— it's riddled with memories of Rebecca, which posthumously taunt its inhabitants like an irritating scent. Of course, this is the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers’ doing, who obsessively preserves Manderley at the moment of Rebecca’s death. Entering the house as newlyweds, Maxim carries the narrator over his shoulder like a freshly killed trophy, as if to signify the start of her misfortunes. Queue Kirsten Scott-Thomas as Mrs. Danvers: the real star of this adaptation. Welcome to Manderley, she croons as her eye twitches at the insolence of replacing her beloved mistress Rebecca. Danvers’ welcome is the most chilling moment in the entirety of the film. I had no trouble believing that she would do anything to make the narrator’s life a living hell.
Now, Wheatley’s casting is rather questionable. Armie Hammer is too young and brooding to play the “medieval” Maxim, and Lily James is too old and beautiful (hardly a “raw ex-schoolgirl”) to play the protagonist true to the original novel. So when Scott Thomas appears with her wonderfully imperious air, she becomes a redeeming feature to an otherwise poor cast. The perfection of her role goes miraculously unwounded by her frothy counterparts, who could have reduced the film to glamorized fan fiction. Most admirable was her ability to play Danvers with a hint of sympathy, a phenomenon that I failed to sense from Judith Anderson (1940) or Diana Riggs’(1994) portrayal. This is all to her credit, not Wheatley’s; she makes it believable that this bitter housekeeper is still human.
Part of the disappointment arises from Wheatley’s ill used modern cinematic devices. At the Manderley ball, the narrator makes an error of wearing the same costume (a red dress tailored after a portrait) as Rebecca, for which Maxim tempestuously scolds her. She stumbles into the crowd, where the guests circle her chanting “Rebecca! Rebecca!”. It’s a terribly uncomfortable and scripted scene, mostly because they sound like children doing vocal warm-up before a school production. It’s a shame that Wheatley lacked faith in the sheer emotional trauma and humiliation of this scene, which would have been enough to bring the narrator to her knees.
The lack of suspense deems Rebecca (2020) a lukewarm thriller, and even the fate of Manderley is anticlimactic. The novel and its adaptations see Mrs. Danvers commit arson to Manderley and disappear amidst the blaze like a spectre, leaving her fate unclear; it's an iconic ending. But Wheatley’s Mrs. Danvers simply leaps off a cliff to her watery grave— he is truly selfish enough to deny us a crumb of suspense. And wait— despite this traumatising event, the de Winters are then seen canoodling in a luxurious room in Cairo (in the novel, they retreat to a humble hotel room and take pleasure in mundane activities). The ending scene has an uncanny echo to their honeymoon phase: filled with honey-tinted lighting and Maxim whispering sweet nothings to the narrator as if to render Manderley void. I too wonder if we would be better off if this adaptation never happened.
Overall, Rebecca is no more than a cut-price souvenir of du Maurier’s creation: it is overly polished and lacks emotional gravity, leaving one superbly un-haunted. Admittedly, it is aesthetically beautiful, but the movie suffers from originality flaws that no amount of soft focus can blur. It’s a cruel parallel to the airhead leads that were clearly cast for their sex appeal, rather than their ability to carry out a compelling portrayal.
Editor’s Note: Rebecca is available to stream on Netflix.