Ben Wheatley returns to Manderley with a film as stunning and oppressive as the title itself. Rebecca is a devoted if somewhat superficial adaptation of the classic.
Netflix continued its commitment to literary thrillers with Dame Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca. It’s been done a few times before, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1940 version, that was Oscar-winning perfection. 2018’s Elizabeth Harvest was a sci-fi Rebecca meets Bluebeard’s Castle, which was surprisingly twisty. Netflix’s version doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the dark mystery, but it does fill that costume drama nitch left vacant when Dead Stills and The Alienist wrapped their respective seasons.
I’m a sucker for costume pieces. When they are done right, the costumes, makeup, and hair become just as important as the story. This is especially true if the story is lite on mystery and heavy on fluff. Netflix’s Rebecca, although gorgeous to look at, lacks the teeth of previous adaptations. Through no fault of the actors who all do a fair job, breathing life into the stale script, it’s too superficial to be captivating.
Lily James is the perfect icy blond with just enough steel mixed with her bewilderment to keep her from being annoying, Armie Hammer(Maxim de Winter) is convincingly domineering and grieving but in a more made for television kind of way, and Kristin Scott Thomas(Mrs. Danvers) is meticulously mean spirited, rod- rigid, and tight lipped-not to mention tight assed. Thomas bristles and seethes contempt with every breath. She is the easy standout playing Mrs. Danvers’s nastiness in a committed, if confusing way.
Most adaptations have primarily ignored the sexual elephant in the room that is Danver’s obsession with Rebecca even after her death. Director Ben Wheatley follows that same mold and gives Thomas the freedom to unleash her repressed inner judge. Her condemnation oozes out of her for the poor unsuspecting Mrs. du Winter the second with almost zero explanation until the end when her hurried backstory is delivered in basically two sentences and the strike of a match. That’s a mistake.
In Hitchcock’s version, Mrs. Danvers’ motivations aren’t fully fleshed, and that’s okay because Maxim and his bride are so compelling I care about them. Hammer and James’ portrayals of these characters are Starbuck coffee versions that are saccharine sweet, pretty to look at, and unfortunately lacking any substance. I’m quite frankly more interested in Rebecca and Danvers than I am Maxim and his new bride. That’s a movie that needs to be made. A psycho-sexual thriller by Craig Macnell(Borden) where we learn Danvers actually killed Rebecca in a fit of rage after Rebecca rebuked her advances. That would be something I could get behind.
There is a timeless quality to the story that few gothic romances have. When universal stories are told beautifully, the result will always stand the test of time. Rebecca is that kind of story. While mostly respectful, Netflix’s version is a weirdly earnest offering that can’t seem to decide if it’s about love or mystery. As a result, the overly sunny opening and far too gloomy Manderley are distracting rather than contrasting. Most of the film can be said, which is just a tad too perky and glossy to have any impact. James’ Hitchock blonde lacks the power Grace Kelly commanded. Maxim’s new bride gets endlessly bullied by Mrs’ Danvers and her husband and never bats an eye. At the very least, I’m not using a dead woman’s brush with her hair still in it-disgusting.
The biggest problem with Rebecca is it doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe we keep returning to Manderley because we keep thinking something new will happen if we do. The massive gloomy halls must surely hide some secrets, right? There’s got to be some ghosts making out behind the curtains or scratching at our cheeks while we sleep. In the end, this Rebecca is more about a young girl’s desire to be loved even in the face of glaring red flags, the toxicity of desperation and regret, and obsession.
Missing was the pulpier bits about what happened to Rebecca. Everything is spelled out pretty quickly, and the trial is more an exercise in necessity than anything else. Hammer and James have chemistry in the early bits, but somewhere along the way, they become distant acquaintances who we are told repeatedly are in love but don’t seem to be getting the same memo.
I didn’t hate Rebecca. There are parts, in fact, that really work. As mentioned before, the costuming, makeup, and hair are spectacular. Thomas is unyielding harshness, and the source material can’t be touched. Like the title character itself, Rebecca refuses to be tamed or possessed even by the juggernaut that is Netflix and their mountain of money. Maybe it’s time we take a note from Mrs; Danvers and burn Manderley to the ground. Sometimes you shouldn’t revisit the past.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.