After a brief courtship on the French Riviera, a naïve young woman (Lily James), who is working as an old biddy’s companion (Ann Dowd) during a European holiday, marries a wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). His first wife, Rebecca, who was a great beauty and society scion, drowned a year earlier. They arrive at his grand manor, Manderley, by the sea in England, where the chilly, obsessive housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) is not welcoming. It’s clear Mrs. Danvers resents the inexperienced new Mrs. De Winter, chides her for her lack of sophistication and experience. She constantly lets her know she is inferior in every way to the deceased Rebecca, who is revered as a perfect wife and hostess. That façade will crumble as secrets and lies are revealed.
This remake of “Rebecca” has a lot to live up to – for one, the 1940 classic is director Alfred Hitchcock’s only film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. So, it’s in the shadow of the master of macabre. It’s also in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Secondly, its source material is one of the most beloved books of all time, Dame Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel. “Rebecca” remains popular to this day and has never been out of print. I read it as a high school freshman when it was on our summer reading list and have counted it among my favorite reads of all-time.
So, like the dead first wife, the film’s reputation looms large.
By today’s standards, it may just be a glamorous melodrama but its psychological thriller elements are haunting and needed to be developed further. The 'gothic' nature isn't dwelled upon either.
That’s why I wish this current take had drawn out more of the eerie, ghostly qualities. It never seems to go far enough – not enough suspense, not enough of the sinister Mrs. Danvers’ infatuation with Rebecca, as she had been her servant since the woman’s childhood, and more needed on the very disturbing qualities of the first Mrs. de Winter, whom we never see but her presence is deeply felt.
The problems lie in the casting, or miscasting, and the wrong choice for directing, Ben Wheatley. His credits include “Free Fire,” a stunningly misguided and violent gangster picture that indicates he wanted to be Guy Ritchie, the freaky “High-Rise,” and an episode of “Doctor Who.” Taking on a Hitchcock film would be daunting, but he can’t decide on his own focus.
As the brooding aristocrat Maxim, Armie Hammer looks the part. He has that regal bearing to carry off a dashing and debonair man of stature. However, he lacks the emotional depth for the character’s dualities. In Monte Carlo, he was a dashing suitor. Back home at Manderley, he keeps his perplexed second wife at a distance, her feelings of self-doubt grow as Mrs. Danvers’ manipulation so that she thinks he regrets the marriage, and then when he confesses what’s really up it needs to be more than stoic looks dissolving into knitted brows.
As the unnamed narrator, Lily James can’t suppress her radiance. Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of nervousness was annoying in the original, and James could never be described as meek. However, the likeable actress who has played Cinderella can convey a woman who knows what it’s like to be made to feel small. She is believable as she matures into an assertive woman.
Kristin Scott Thomas is suited for the severe imperious Mrs. Danvers – no first name – who can wilt people with one look. But except for a few snippets of dialogue, the character needed enrichment.
Nevertheless, this modern film can do things that weren’t possible 80 years ago. The sweeping grandeur of the French Riviera is breathtaking, as are the panoramic views of the enormous estate, Manderley, perched above the cliffs of Cornwall. The cinematography is glorious.
The production design is splendid – especially the well-preserved bedroom suite of Rebecca. The home’s opulence also has a garish quality, overstuffed with décor.
The supporting cast includes the housekeeping staff, which lends a “Downtown Abbey” feel to the film.
Because of the Hollywood Code in 1940, Hitchcock had to change a significant plot point. Here, it is thankfully restored. So things Hitch couldn’t do are evident here.
Expectations are often what torpedoes a film or builds it up. I wanted to adore this, instead, I held it at arms’ length.