Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca
"What is fatal is to make the mistake of thinking, because Hitchcock built up his illusions so well, that this is a story about nice people."

Why is there so much hatred out there for Ben Wheatley's take on Rebecca? It's almost as if, having fallen in love with Hitchcock's version, viewers feel that this one is trying to replace it - yet they are very different creatures.

This isn't like Gus Van Sant's tragically ill-judged remake of Psycho. Wheatley isn't trying to copy Hitchcock. He's gone back to the source material, and his take on Daphne Du Maurier's novel is very much his own. There are two key ways to interpret the book. Hitchcock, always drawn to the Gothic (as one can see from his adaptation of that other Du Maurier novel, The Birds), looks at it through the prism of love (what else would make a woman stay with a man with a secret like Maxim's?). Wheatley's take is colder. His characteristic use of folk music and a scene in which the new Mrs de Winter is surrounded by a circle of dancers highlight the deep Englishness of the story. His focus is on class (what else would make a woman stay with a man with a secret like Maxim's?).

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It opens in Monte Carlo, where our two leads begin their romance: Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) one of the most eligible widowers in England, owner of the vast Manderley estate, and the nameless young woman (Lily James) a nobody, an orphan, a lady's maid. Later he will tell us how he loves her innocent, lost look and we will wonder if it is this very helplessness that has drawn him to her. As for what has drawn her to him, she assures us that it is love - grand love of the sort that echoes down the ages. Their courtship is gorgeously photographed, cinematographer Laurie Rose playing with the light, giving it the quality of high end cine film. This is the first signal that we're looking at something artificial - not events as they took place but a careful reconstruction. Is our heroine weaving this fiction for her own sake, or for ours? It's easy to believe her - right up until the last shot, when James' eyes allow us a glimpse of who she really is.

Back at Manderley, life is lonely for the new bride, who is left to wander through the vast hallways whilst her husband occupies himself with business. We watch her explore, probing out it little secrets, learning all she can about the former wife - Rebecca - whose lingering presence continues to obsess everyone around the place, including Maxim. It brings some comfort to housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose intense love for her is portrayed with an intriguing softness by the ever-reliable Kristin Scott Thomas. Whilst Judith Anderson's take on the role daringly drew on the lesbian stereotypes of the time, Scott Thomas' performance is more ambiguous, suggesting a bond so complete that she has never really examined its nature - though there are hints that she is trying to find something sensually appealing about the new Mrs de Winter, only to meet with disappointment.

Perhaps some of the disappointment felt by critics of this film hinges on their lingering love for Joan Fontaine in all her glorious innocence. The language of the Gothic is complicated and doesn't map neatly onto modern expectations (or even those of 1940). What is fatal is to make the mistake of thinking, because Hitchcock built up his illusions so well, that this is a story about nice people. Mrs Danvers was always the human core of the story and here that is more important than ever. Sam Riley is impressive in a brief turn as the dead woman's cousin, a man who shares Mrs Danvers' grief. He, too, is trying to understand more about Rebecca, especially her death. Whilst both these characters are capable of cruelty, they would be, with just a slight shift in the framing, the characters we'd root for. Both Hitchcock and Wheatley have followed Du Maurier's lead in obscuring this, but Wheatley invites us to ask questions that go beyond the mystery around which the book is framed.

The result is uncomfortable. it ought to be, and it's a credit to the producers and to Netflix that they were willing to support this despite its obvious alienating effect, but perhaps they have understood that, like some of Wheatley's other works, this is destined to attract a loyal following and grow in stature over time. It's not a perfect film. Hammer is a bit of a waste of space, though Maxim should never dominate the story, which belongs to the women, and a degree of blankness on his part is important to the underlying themes. In a way, he and his new wife are very well matched, and not only because neither of them is quite as smart as they think they are.

In Hitchcock's adaptation, the new Mrs de Winter's lack of a name of her own made her seem like a victim. In Wheatley's, it adds to her ambiguity. She could be anything - and she knows it.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2020
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Rebecca packshot
A young newlywed arrives at her husband's imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.
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Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier

Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ann Dowd, Tom Goodman-Hill, Sam Riley

Year: 2020

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: UK, US


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