Poor, poor Armie Hammer. Who told him the lie that being white, tall, and rich-looking was enough to establish a career in Hollywood? Hammer has never excited me; both his choice of films and what he does with his appearances tends to bore, if they register at all. But Netflix’s Rebecca — the laborious Ben Wheatley adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel that was already straight-up bodied by Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in 1940 — brings his limitations as an actor, screen presence, and potential star into a harsh spotlight. For starters, his British accent is laughable, and his physicality mistakes stiffness for power. But Lily James as the unnamed heroine at its center fares no better. She is saddled with a dry-as-hell blonde bob wig, yet even that lifeless mop has more verve than her performance. If you think I sound a bit harsh now, I’m just getting started. The leads set the tone for this unfortunate waste of time, heralding a series of issues that reflect poorly not only on this ugly retread but on much of Hollywood’s recent output as a whole.
Directed by a seemingly unengaged, voiceless Wheatley, Rebecca begins exactly where the Hitchcock and Selznick version starts its story. Mind you, this is a bold and, it turns out, misguided move, to retrace the same steps as the 1941 Best Picture winner. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” James’s narration starts, as the camera approaches a dreary rendition of the first film’s infamous estate, tracking what appears to be a red-clad Rebecca, the first wife of Hammer’s Maxim — she who lived and died mysteriously. Rebecca is in essence a ghost story, or at least a story about the ghosts we bring into romantic relationships. If anything, the original novel’s themes hold more potential in 2020, as the gaslighting and the hesitancy around female autonomy and sexuality have grown more prickly in a modern light. But the decision to be so literal, to show Rebecca no matter how fleetingly, tips to the Netflix film’s overall issue with trusting its audience with a new story.
Here, the aforementioned unnamed heroine is introduced to us as a paid companion to the gauche Edythe Van Hopper (an abhorrent and grating Ann Dowd), who crosses paths (when? Maybe in 1940, but it’s hard to pin down) with Maxim de Winter, a grim, old-money widower who curdles whenever the first Mrs. de Winter is mentioned. The unnamed heroine soon gets swept up in his presence, falling into a hasty marriage pushed into existence by circumstance. When she enters his infamous home, Manderley, managed by the icy, manipulative Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the new Mrs. de Winter finds emotional horrors at every turn, particularly once Rebecca’s body is found.
Rebecca (1940) is a masterpiece, beguiling because of both the behind-the-scenes tension that ushered it into life and the titanic performances that brought an enraptured gothic romance to screen (not to underplay the grace of its camera movement, and the way it plays with shadows). Rebecca (2020) can’t manage to even touch the hem of the original as it plays out the inevitable conflict within this marriage of opposites. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the recent incarnation on Hitchcock’s precedent, but it invites comparison by refusing to carve much of its own path from the start. Wheatley makes a few changes — the ball scene is extended garishly; the cause of Rebecca’s death hews closer to the novel rather than Hitchcock’s quieter rendition, now that the story is free from Hays Code restrictions — but, in the most crucial ways, this movie fails to stand on its own, or reimagine du Maurier’s rich text in a contemporary fashion.
And I keep going back to the acting. Hammer seems lost in his role. Gone is the Byronic hero flair that Laurence Olivier brought to the part, replaced by something empty and blunt. When called to express Maxim’s volcanic anger, Hammer can barely muster a flame. James’s performance as Mrs. de Winter doesn’t elicit the sympathy necessary, either. She hunches her shoulders, possessing the flighty physical expressions of a wounded sparrow. There’s nothing going on behind her eyes — no complication, no lust, no hunger, no touching naïveté that grows into a surer sense of self. Indicative of their lack of chemistry is an early “sex” scene that takes place on the shore of a beach, a moment meant to be blissfully romantic yet, somehow, the cinematography makes Monte Carlo feel unappealing. I put “sex” in quotation marks because there’s no heat or sensuality to be found there. The camera remains trained on their sun-kissed faces, ignoring any choreography to their bodies, a setup that feels ripped from a Nicholas Sparks joint or a community-theater production populated by CW rejects (which is not helped by the clashing score, forcing Rebecca into a by-the-numbers thriller).
There is one actorly bright spot in the film, though: Kristin Scott Thomas. With a strained smile and masklike disposition, she’s a terror to behold. She relentlessly obsesses over her dear Rebecca, and Thomas seems to relish the part, her delivery so precise and revealing. It’s a fine-tuned performance limited by the rote dimensions of her scene partners and the very nature of the film she finds herself in. In 2020, Mrs. Danvers is stripped of the lesbian undertones injected into the original Hitchcock-Selznick adaptation. It’s an issue with the script that both wildly misunderstands the text and is somehow less provocative than the version that came out 80 years ago.
Rebecca sits at an intersection of problems indicative of the state of contemporary Hollywood as a whole. Namely, the decline in American filmmaking’s interest and understanding of sensuality and sexuality, as well as the dwindling ranks of forcefully charismatic stars. Both James and Hammer’s careers rest on their looks fitting into the slim parameters of institutionally accepted beauty. Not to get too Norma Desmond on you, but where are the interesting faces? Then there’s a script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse that lacks the requisite eroticism to sweep audiences into this tale. This isn’t all that surprising. Erotic thrillers have been on the decline for decades in the U.S. But the least Rebecca could do is look lush and beautiful. Instead, its color palette is all gangrene and corrosion. Manderley should be both haunting and seductive, but when it crests on the horizon early on in the movie, it looks squat and banal. Inside, it’s a vacuum-sealed museum that lacks human touch. The costume design by Julian Day is similarly baffling. Why would Maxim de Winter, who is pure money, wear the same bile-yellow suit again and again? And the blocking is especially sloppy. Just watch the scenes in Rebecca’s bedroom, when Mrs. Danvers is either conveying their extravagant lifestyle to the new Mrs. de Winter or subtly threatening her. At one point, Mrs. Danvers seethes toward Maxim’s second wife until she’s crumpled on the floor surrounded by mirrors, a display that could have been affecting had it been properly arranged.
I don’t think this new adaptation was doomed from the start. There were so many ways in which the text could have been reimagined in order to step far enough away from Hitchcock’s vision. Make Mrs. de Winter American. Hell, make her a woman of color and bring the class dynamics to the fore (they’re only tepidly introduced in Wheatley’s adaptation). I’d even take a version narrated by the first Mrs. de Winter, or a prequel audacious enough to explore this world from Rebecca’s perspective. (Spoiler: The ending coda is especially galling, veering into a happily-ever-after scenario that clashes with everything the du Maurier’s story is meant to represent and interrogate.) This is all, of course, the result of ill-equipped filmmakers, who mistook the source material and original adaptation as mere IP to be rebooted, an algorithmic model to be fulfilled, rather than an artful tale of delicious, sexual hunger.
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