You’re going to hear a lot about how Rebecca is both very alike and never as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation. They’re not wrong, but that misses the important things.
Based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, a lady’s companion (Lily James), accompanying her employer on holiday meets, falls for and marries dashing recent widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer – more on this later). Returning to his old-money estate of estates, Manderley’s housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) ranks first and foremost among many assuring the newly-wed that she will never measure up to Maxim’s extremely well-bred former wife and by all accounts most beautiful woman now no longer alive, Rebecca.
It’s a shrewd advent of the story and various adaptations that James’ character is never named and most memorably referred to as “little fool.” Rebecca, however, ranks perhaps highest among any feature’s characters so developed absent an actual appearance. Hitchcock would return to the same theme near twenty years later in North by Northwest, though never to so near chilling effect.
Rebecca is significantly not a horror by any great stretch, nor romance, nor thriller as it will alternately be billed and characterised. It is however a gothic romance; a genre near forsaken by mainstream filmmaking in modern times at least partly due to the enjoyable fumble that was Crimson Peak; itself owing Rebecca a great debt.
And gothic this is; imparting a story unnerving by design and tormenting in consequence that by pure virtue of its bona fides will emerge engaging via any relatively faithful adaptation whatever its detractions. Yet this is where we stumble on one of the most fundamental conflicts of criticism which Director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation, for this is an adaptation even if it draws much from the Hitchcock version, so brings to the foreground.
It’s fair that any film should be judged on its merits alone yet any feature in light of its forebears and moreover both previous adaptations and those same it indeed apes need justify why we should see it and more pointedly why it is different, why it should at all exist. Much of the criticism of Rebecca to date draws attention to yet overstates the extent to which this version reflects the original; missing that which is so effectively distinct and the simple fact that most who see this film won’t have seen the first adaptation even if, together with this one, they should.
Of course nearly every critic has seen Rebecca (1940) but it simply isn’t a mainstream classic and enough time has passed for a distinctive adaptation. To his credit Wheatley waited for decades to elapse between a recognisable screen adaptation and indeed 80 years since the original. This is much greater than the year alone Hitchcock waited following the monumentally successful Wuthering Heights too starring Laurence Olivier from which no one could help but draw comparisons and none too long since varied adaptations of Jane Eye to which Rebecca owes much.
To Wheatley’s credit, Hammer’s casting diverges from the Rochester visage which befits comparisons with the most notable Rebecca adaptations, but as promised we’ll get into that. The point is that if Rebecca (2020) offers enough new, which it does, and which we’ll get into now, then it’s more than worth the wait.
Sex was not a big thing in 1940, at least in movies. The Hayes code meant you could barely show two folks in the same bed together and whatever Hitchcock achieved by suggestion Wheatley rendered raw and relatable for being able to actually show it. Rebecca hinges on a believable dynamic between de Winter and the new Mrs de Winter and this is that much more palpable when its actually on display.
The dual leads’ casting helps in this regard and they do have chemistry; in the most famous adaptations de Winter has always at least appeared to be a lot older than his partner, even though Olivier was only ten years Joan Fontaine’s senior. Charles Dance’s casting exemplifies the trend; the actor almost always having looked like Tywin Lannister – and for those who remember Game of Thrones long before the recently deceased Dame Diana Rigg shared that wonderful jousting scene with her Casterly Rock counterpart she appeared opposite Dance as the series’ Mrs Danvers.
James and Hammer, alternately, look and are only a few years apart, emphasising the tragedy of lost youth in their shared circumstance rather than, as we’ll discuss below, casting underlining through age difference the decline of empire and old ways. It’s not better or worse, just different, and when it comes to new adaptations we’re on for different.
James is reliably good and justly entrusted with seeing us through every sequence. Relaying an identifiable figure thrust upward through classes and faltering to find her feet when confronted, it’s understandable that much of the narrative is from her perspective though notable and shrewd that at least some of the perspective here, unlike in Hitchcock’s version, falls on Hammer’s shoulders.
de Winter won’t be an obvious identification figure for many but for those who can relate to losing a partner the focus is refreshing; so often in cinema the emphasis is on the event rather than its aftermath, impact or consequence and the subtle shift in this version lends it layers bereft from its precursors.
There is too a greater ambiguity this time around in some of the story’s circumstances to which the tone set by the fleeting yet essential appearances of a well-cast Keeley Hawes as de Winter’s sister is tantamount. Yes veering more exactly to the retelling of de Winter’s revelation per the novel than Hitchcock’s adaptation chose to removes some of the guesswork yet given the creative choices in this retelling whom we perceive as the moral and immoral bastions and views on whether this shifts at all are involving for not only being distinct from the 1940 version but, given the clues here relayed and players’ particular characterisations, open to broader and consequentially very enjoyable speculation.
This can’t be addressed in any further detail without covering spoilers which would not be due, and as an aside, as we’ve long since passed the first act and it would be remiss to go on without saying, Ann Dowd is of course very good for those short stretches she’s permitted to enliven this narrative.
What can however be addressed is the renewed feminist focus of sorts (and more explicitly so) in this version, underlined by Danvers characterisation in one crucial speech of Rebecca as a boundary pusher. Something never so prominent in the Hitchcock version, it is predictable a contemporary retelling incorporating the second act revelation, the more than fraught nature of which the filmmakers’ are evidently conscious, would be treated with a different tone than a studio feature would typically push in 1940. Such focus is too furthered by aspects of the ultimate evolution of James’ character even if elements of her decision-making and the nature of her agency and lack thereof remain in the dark (again, spoilers); something again welcomely distinct in this latest version.
As for the historically much-touted queer reading, by virtue of Danvers’ dialogue idolising Rebecca and herein the characters’ last lines, this treatment of both figures remains as present as ever though lacks overwhelmingly prominence as characteristic of other adaptations. Thomas, the most memorable aspect of this whole endeavour, handles her role and these facets exceptionally well; even managing to ground an ill-conceived, overly familiar sequence where the main cast just happen upon a hall of mirrors. Importantly, Rebecca is near always discussed in the language of regalness and as an infallible entity; this author having always preferred the interpretation that in this narrative, depicting the decline of such ideations, that Rebecca is more god-like than person – a view not inconsistent with any queer reading which regardless loses pride of place and any lingering impact to the former’s emphasis.
In spite of the aforementioned and all that managed so well there however protrudes a quintessential failure in Wheatley’s conception that by virtue of its prominence could not have been factored into the filmmaking.
du Maurier’s novel was written in 1938, set contemporaneously and the first adaptations (Orson Welles and the airwaves actually beat Hitchcock to the punch) were too contemporaneous. They are gothic romances depicting the conflict between age-old dynasties who still really care about Henry VIII and patrilineal inheritance and those caught in it ala Mrs de Winter take #2 and Danvers who would be better off, like all of us, with some distance and better distribution of wealth. The spectacular ending is more than symbolic in this regard.
Wheatley, creating a period film, so errs by so glamorising that which is the fundamental disdain of the story; the lifestyle and pitfalls of those trapped by virtue of birth or society’s shortcomings, or both, in this world. Yes parts of his movie look pretty by design i.e. the naturalistic settings which aren’t obviously and unnecessarily CGI-infused, but Hitchcock had the right idea to shoot in shadows; the opulence in this story (and any almost any gothic one to boot) is not aspirational – it’s supposed to be foreboding.
And as welcome in respects as Hammer’s casting is by consequence of his evident age comparative to James the decline of empire and antiquated ways is not so underlined, nor is it by his by and large inability to necessarily convey brooding and internal torment as Olivier could and any number of more suitably cast actors might have with a simple grimace. Wheatley couldn’t even bring himself to focus primarily on Hammer at the moment of crucial revelation to which Olivier was proffered an unbroken shot; choosing instead to focus on the yes more talented but at this juncture not so central James.
More significantly, the very American actor is just not very British, for this is a British movie that only makes sense in a particular context that so values certain traditions and the infallibility of aristocracies. Having just moved from England, Hitchcock cleverly chose Rebecca as his American debut; telling the world, as he went on to do in his later films, that he was ready for the triumph of a more modern, American mentality over the traditions of decidedly British stylings and archetypes which he could and did still deliver semblances of here and after to thrilling effect.
On Wheatley’s direction, while he manages to make things look nice the intendedly eerie segments and jump scares do not register. This was a gothic romance and alike Portrait of a Lady on Fire did not need to render itself scary, just unnerving, as he and the cast achieved in the window sequence and visits to the west wing. There are a couple of ‘fright’ moments, notable among them one in a shack, that come across like the intendedly hammy shocks in Game Night and (this is only a bit too harsh) the famous shelf scene in Young Frankenstein. Watching this with my companion, she was incidentally brushing her long, dark hair when Danvers similarly remarked on combing Rebecca’s brazen locks. Turning to me at this moment in the cinema with a Marty Feldman-esque glare, a few of the ‘darker’ moments herein come across as such.
Wheatley’s conception and his looking backwards not forwards is not helped in one major respect by James’ casting. Borrowing imagery heavily from Downtown Abbey (which actually struck the right tone between wealth-porn and examining those shortcomings and its world’s ultimate decline); those fans of the show might find it just that little bit jarring seeing James pop down to the helps’ quarters to advise on which sauce to serve. More obscure but no less distracting for those who had the misfortune of seeing (or reading) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the still very good Sam Riley’s casting as Rebecca’s cousin. Having played Mr Darcy opposite James’ Elizabeth, they are here likewise tasked with wandering about English manors musing on those richer than them.
There’s more than enough in the retelling to recommend Rebecca; you’ve seen most of this but you haven’t seen it all before.
Rebecca is streaming on Netflix from October 22