British filmmaker Ben Wheatley helms a surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's beloved gothic novel
It's unusual to begin a review with an admission of not having seen a very famous and culturally significant film, but here goes: I’ve never seen the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Rebecca, thought to be one of the director's best films. I haven't seen any of the countless other adaptations, either, or the stage show, or read the original novel, though I've always been vaguely aware of the story (big house, gothic romance) and the book's infamous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Does all this mean I'm less qualified to write about British director Ben Wheatley's new take on this hallowed material, or more? Jury's out. What's made apparent right from the off, though, is that Wheatley, a visually and thematically distinct filmmaker whose efforts so far have spanned the brilliantly horrific (Kill List) to the brilliantly weird (Sightseers), has made his most anonymous film to date with this unexpectedly safe take on Daphne du Maurier's classic.
You might have assumed he'd signed up for this Netflix project (the script is by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse) because he'd found a clever or surprising way to reinterpret the material. Yet, no: this is a (seemingly) intentionally standard adaptation, free of narrative tricks, unexpected shifts into the surreal, and – as is the case with Wheatley's other films – scenes destined to inspire dozens of think-pieces. You can't even tell that Ben Wheatley directed this Rebecca, save for a few obscure needle drops. Was it supposed to be this way, or are we witnessing a compromise?
Lily James is cast in the role of the mousy, unnamed young woman played by Joan Fontaine in the original film, whose life is transformed upon meeting the dashing widower Max de Winter (Armie Hammer, standing in for Laurence Olivier) in 1930s Monte Carlo. She's a hen-pecked lady's companion; he's there mourning the death of his wife, Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. They strike up an unexpected romance and – just like something out of a fairytale, as one character remarks – Max invites her to return to his stately home in Cornwall as his new wife. It's there, at Manderley, that we meet cold-hearted head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas, the film's most inspired casting decision) who takes an instant dislike to Max's new wife and puts her through a series of humiliating incidents in a bid to drive her away; nobody can take Rebecca's place in her mind. And it's Rebecca's name that hangs over a narrative that continually turns itself on its head, reshaping the tragedy at the heart of the tale as the second Mrs. de Winter struggles to understand the truth about what went down at Manderley all those years ago.
I'm sure to those who revere the Hitchcock original this film will come over as entirely pointless. Will this Rebecca work for somebody who has never seen Rebecca, though? The answer is: sort of, if you're happy to sit with something mildly gripping and somewhat intriguing that shimmers and glints all over the screen for two hours without ever truly popping. It's lushly designed in glimmering hues of gold and red, but also never quite escapes that artificial Netflix aesthetic that seems to define all their feature films – a digital sheen that creates a strangely fake cinematic world.
It all runs smoothly enough, if without any surprises (shocking, given that surprises are Wheatley's bread and butter). James is fine as the second Mrs. de Winter, though there's something a bit conflicted in her performance that prevents us from understanding who she is or what she wants (a strange conceit in the film's final shot further complicates this). Hammer doesn't quite make much of the role of Max, either; he's flatly drawn, less interesting than a character with his backstory permits. Together their romance feels ordained by the mechanics of the story and not from any palpable sexual chemistry. Even without having seen Fontaine and Olivier in these roles, a newcomer will sense these characters have more to give. But it would be wrong to say these new performances were bad or entirely non-effective. They're as serviceable as the film itself.
Before he signed onto this project, Wheatley mostly worked in tandem with his real life partner and scriptwriter Amy Jump, whose name – and influence – is nowhere to be seen on this script. Their split here might suggest Wheatley wants to find room for more workmanlike projects – or that he's attempting to drum up some goodwill for a time in the future when he might need to pitch more personal projects to the streaming giant. And maybe this film was never intended for Wheatley fans, but your average Netflix user unlikely to consider the 1940 version on the basis that it’s “old” and “black and white.” To that purpose, it works in the vein of a Sunday night BBC period drama, even if the film's big denouement doesn't quite land.
Still, I can't escape the sense that I'd have preferred my first taste of this material to have been in the company of a more unique execution; a full on bastardisation, even, in the vein of a ridiculous comic pastiche or a terrifying psychological horror. What was stopping Wheatley from owning Rebecca outright? The filmmaker has made an obvious effort to keep the boat steady for reasons we might never know. His Rebecca is watchable, though on this evidence I don't think I'll be dreaming of Manderley anytime soon.
Rebecca is now showing in select UK cinemas. It will stream on Netflix on October 21.Where to watch