Published Oct 20, 2020Novelist Daphne du Maurier wove her favourite inspirations — water, dogs, food, suspense — into everything she wrote, from the grandest plots to the minutest of gestures. This is why it's such a shame that Ben Wheatley's adaptation of her novel Rebecca registers only the drama and none of the thrill that made the original story so memorable. Without adding anything new and unique to the plot, despite the film's grand efforts, the new Rebecca scans as a boring period piece that forgets it's meant to be a ghost story.
Wheatley and the scriptwriters (Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) certainly aimed to do du Maurier's plot justice. At two hours in length, the film begins with the unnamed protagonist (Lily James) having an iconic dream, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The protagonist and her husband, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), are living in exile as she tells us the tale of how she and widower Maxim met years ago in Monte Carlo, married, and then arrived at Manderley, where she first encountered head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mrs. Danvers is frightening and loved Rebecca, Maxim's dead wife, to no end. It's a year after Rebecca's death but Mrs. Danvers has Rebecca's room in immaculate order, like a shrine, and she misses no opportunity to remind the protagonist of how she will never measure up to Rebecca. What follows is the young Mrs. de Winter trying to make Manderley her home as Mrs. Danvers plots against her, and as mystery swells around Rebecca's death.
It's a lot of ground to cover, all in face of inevitable comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's award-winning adaptation from 1940. And in its rush to cover this ground, Wheatley's adaptation loses a lot: the protagonist's distinct voice, the power of nature and the water, Manderley's foreboding stature, and, most unfortunately, Rebecca's haunting presence. Du Maurier's tale has always been lauded in the same breath as Jane Eyre; it's a ghost story without a ghost. Rebecca's overbearing presence as femme fatale, along with her death, haunt every corner of Manderley. Her name is everywhere, and the protagonist oftentimes feels as though she's being watched by Rebecca. But in this movie, aside from two dreamy glimpses of Rebecca, she isn't felt, only talked about by the characters. There are no shadows, and we never feel as though Rebecca will emerge at any moment. The movie does not make us fear Rebecca's power, her cunning, or her beauty. There is no suspense or fright in this movie because everything is stated so matter-of-factly, except by Scott Thomas' Mrs. Danvers.
Scott Thomas is the best thing about this Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers is a dark, towering figure whose love for Rebecca is more sensual than platonic. Scott Thomas' Mrs. Danvers hounds James' Mrs. de Winter, makes her feel weak and scared, and this character is the only one that incites fear by speaking Rebecca to life. James, as the protagonist, gets the job done; her portrayal of Mrs. de Winter's clumsiness and self-consciousness are unbelievable, and she and Hammer have no chemistry — so much so that it seems gross when they kiss, which is often. Hammer is ill-suited as Maxim; the character is meant to be patriarchy personified, but Hammer is soft and just boring to watch.
What makes this movie a failure is that it neglects the book's voice. It isn't told from the compelling perspective of Mrs. de Winter, so much so that you forget she's meant to be narrating. James oftentimes appears to the periphery of the screen, looking away, effacing herself, when really we should be sat atop her shoulder.
The location of Manderley is neglected as well. Du Maurier's Manderley is a gothic beast of an estate surrounded by lush flora and fauna (to get to the front door you must first get past a mouth-like canopy of blood-red rhododendrons) and flanked by the roiling sea — it's a formidable character. In this movie, however, the house's facade and surroundings are glimpsed but for a moment then forgotten.
The book's power lay in its ability to terrify us, to have us look out for Rebecca in every shadow. Rebecca is larger than life — but in this movie, she is an afterthought. She does not haunt Manderley so much as James' Mrs. de Winter stumbles tediously through it after Maxim. The movie does not respect Rebecca, choosing to vilify her in favour of saving Maxim and Mrs. de Winter; in so doing, the movie robs Rebecca of the tragic complexity du Maurer wrote in her.
Wheatley's movie runs like an IKEA instructions manual: indifferent to its characters, just stating plot points by rote.This movie has no personality, it's not interesting, and the score is atrocious. Overbearing and sounding as though it would be better placed in an adventure movie, the score runs steadfast through every (and boy do I mean every) scene, foiling any tension that might have snuck into it by chance.
For an example of a stunning adaption of du Maurier's prose that does justice to her skill with suspense, try Hitchcock's version, or watch Don't Look Now (1973), which is lush, terrifying, and has the best sex scene ever. Heck, there's even Hitchcock's iconic adaptation of her short story The Birds (1963). This, on the other hand, is not a du Maurier thriller. (Netflix)