Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca remake is an emotionally facile film devoid of either atmosphere or ambiguity.
It’s easy to criticize any literary adaptation simply for straying from the text. Fealty to source material means a lot for fans of any book and it’s frequently the benchmark by which cinematic versions are measured. On that standard alone, Ben Wheatley’s shiny new iteration of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca is an abject failure. But unfaithful movie versions are completely fair artistic game. Seeking and finding inspiration in a work and taking it in new or personal directions is what cinematic adaptation is for. And yet on this front Rebecca is also a failure — a complete bastardization of the characters and themes in one of literature’s great gothic romances.
While accompanying a wealthy dowager in Monaco as a paid companion, an unnamed woman (Lily James) meets the dashing and recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), and the two find themselves quickly smitten with each other. After a brief whirlwind courtship they marry, and the girl, now known only as Mrs. de Winter, joins her new husband at his gorgeous and foreboding estate, Manderley. And although he hasn’t yet spoken much about his former spouse Rebecca, she’s about to find out just how long a shadow she casts over this home and all who inhabit it, especially the icy, overbearing housekeeper Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Maxim’s behavior becomes almost instantly dismissive and occasionally abusive; he forbids Mrs. de Winter from entering this or that room or broaching certain subjects. Danvers is much more devious, constantly needling her new mistress about her inability to match up to her predecessor in bearing or class or beauty, and deploying some pretty overt and nasty deceptions to draw out Maxim’s displeasure in his new wife. And of course, nobody seems willing to discuss just what happened to Rebecca.
The main beats are all here, not a lot has been changed narratively from the novel. In fact, the big reveal of just what befell Rebecca is completely intact, which is more than you can say for Hitchcock’s far more successful 1940 version. But this story is a classic of thorny proto-feminism and doomed romance, with young Mrs. de Winter finding herself sucked further and further into a whirlpool of codependency and complicity, truly in love with an abusive and decidedly sociopathic man. Without spoiling anything, Rebecca’s fate and the control she has over all of the characters, even in death, is the ultimate self-actualization. But that’s been replaced here by some junky pseudo-empowerment in which Mrs. de Winter defeats the specter of her predecessor and the devious machinations of Danvers in order to be set free to love her husband on her own. There’s even a tacked-on happy ending. It’s a disastrous choice; one wonders if Wheatley did much more than read a Wikipedia synopsis of the novel.
The director has not only drained this story of ambiguity and purpose but of atmosphere. Despite the massive, ornately decorated mansion setting, there’s not a drop of it here. What’s described in the book as some cavernous gothic monument to the former lady of the house is here a bright, sunny, orange and white 1930s art-deco paradise, with no corner unilluminated and with hardly a closed window in summertime. It’s the kind of baffling aesthetic decision that seems to have been made only because it’s opposite day.
James and Hammer are woefully miscast. Both are too young and too pretty, and the novel’s crucial age-gap between the two characters removed. James is indistinguishable from any number of tiny blonde British ingenues, and Hammer’s only characteristic as a performer is his strenuous insistence on burying the needle in the red on any given emotion. Maxim is always the saddest or the angriest he can possibly be at any given moment. Only Scott Thomas gets away unscathed, as she’s the sole performer who gets to have any fun, but turning Danvers into a mere foil motivated by jealousy instead of a complicated adversary trapped in her own brutal obsession only underscores the lack of any emotional complexity on offer here.
You can currently view Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca on Netflix.