Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas
Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
Editor: Jonathan Amos
Streaming on: Netflix
The spirit of Rebecca, now streaming on Netflix, has much in common with its unnamed protagonist. If she’s haunted by intrusive thoughts of her husband’s former wife, it’s the ghosts of adaptations past that hang heavy over the film, particularly Alfred Hitchcock’s superlative 1940 take. While the protagonist deals with untoward comparisons by retreating into herself and growing increasingly unsure, the film puffs out its chest, possessed by the idea that magnifying every nuance of its source material will help it tower over its predecessors. It doesn’t work. Rebecca turns its characters into caricatures and infantilizes the audience by assuming that anything worth saying must be done so loudly and unsubtly.
The protagonist (Lily James), shy and naïve in the novel, internalizes the behaviour of a character in a wacky sitcom rather than the psychological thriller that Rebecca is meant to be. In the opening five minutes, she attempts to pet a stranger’s dog only to get snarled at in return, awkwardly gets in the way of a group photograph and spills all her loose change while fumbling with her purse. Cue laugh track?
As a companion to a wealthy woman on vacation in Monte Carlo, she meets Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), whose baggage only has space for a single mustard-coloured suit, so filled to the brim it is with emotional trauma instead. Not content to let his turmoil over his late wife be an internal struggle, the film insists that it manifest itself physically, adding in scenes of him sleepwalking into her vacant bedroom. The blossoming romance between him and the narrator, delicate and hesitant in the novel, leaves no room for ambiguity in the film. They have sex on a beach. (That this scene follows one in which the virginal narrator accidentally spies on a couple doing the same and is shocked is a particularly baffling choice.)
The newly married couple move to Max’s lush estate, where the makers don’t gradually build on how the narrator feels like an interloper living in her predecessor’s shadow. Instead, they tack on heavy-handed scenes that aren’t in the novel, repeatedly verbalizing what should be felt. Any gnawing sense of unease this largely-flat adaptation evokes is more likely directed towards it than because of it.
Rebecca’s one bright spot is Kristin Scott Thomas, who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as the stiffly disapproving housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, still hopelessly devoted to her former mistress. A scene in which she professes her vulnerabilities, not in the original text, is such a masterful portrayal of loneliness, it sparked momentary hope that the film would finally deviate from its source, seize a new and exciting path to follow and emerge triumphant. No such luck.
The rest of the film returns to being a crashing bore, its famous twist doing little to invigorate this bland and banal universe. Instead, it turns the film into a coming-of-age tale for the narrator, who goes from fish out of water to someone crafty and capable enough of executing a daring heist. The arc is the film’s attempt to give author Daphne du Maurier’s work a feminist update, but the transformation is too rushed to feel validating. The film also takes pains to point out that this change in the narrator is the result of her love for her husband, rather than any internal convictions, muddling its own message.
The final scene, which substitutes the novel’s original ending with a heaping of schmaltz instead, is flat-out infuriating. “We can never go back to Manderley again, that much is certain,” says the second Mrs. de Winter in Hitchcock’s version of the movie. Filmmakers thinking of adapting Rebecca in the future would do well to heed that advice.