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'Rebecca' review: Manderley again, but why?

Ben Wheatley’s timid adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel finds little to add to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version

Armie Hammer and Lily James in 'Rebecca'

Last night I dreamt I saw Rebecca again. Only this Maxim de Winter had no moustache, and smiled, and didn’t seem to despise his new bride. What a let down. But Manderley was beautiful as ever, and the second Mrs de Winter still a bundle of nerves. All in all, it was the same, except in colour, and worse.

Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca exists; we know not why. A Working Title production, it’s being distributed by Netflix, presumably to cater to Armie Hammer fans who can’t get enough of the actor in sun-kissed continental settings. It’s based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier; more importantly, it’s made in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation. Wheatley makes a few tweaks—notably, a revelation that was there in the novel but which the Hollywood Production Code wouldn’t allow. Even so, this is a timid revisiting of Rebecca, neither convincingly sexy nor Gothic, as much stuck in the past as its widower protagonist.

Rebecca isn’t god-tier Hitchcock but had he made it in colour there's little chance he would have introduced his hero in an ill-fitting mustard suit. Not that the soon-to-be second Mrs de Winter (Lily James) cares—she’s so fluttery and unsure of herself she wouldn’t notice if Maxim (Hammer) was in shorts. Despite this, I prefer the Monte Carlo courtship here to the Hitchcock one. Hammer might be less de Wintry than fans of the book would like, but given the troubles his wife will soon face, it’s difficult to begrudge her an enthusiastic suitor in place of Laurence Olivier’s hilariously sour Maxim.

It’s when the happy couple come home to the seaside estate of Manderley that the film’s limitations become apparent. At every step where a reinvention is possible, Wheatley opts for a retread. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers is as cold with her new mistress and obsessed with her old one, the late, wild Rebecca, as she was in the Hitchcock film. Even Kristin Scott Thomas, as adept as any actor at icy severity, can't really improve on Judith Anderson’s performance, only replicate it. A more self-possessed Mrs de Winter might have been interesting as well, but James invests her character with jello-like fortitude, twitching and gulping and blinking her way through scenes.

Above all, it’s the same Rebecca, still whipping the horse until it bleeds, still taunting her husband with her affairs. The film still turns on whether Maxim killed her (not that it really matters). There’s a glimpse of a willful, magnetic woman in Danvers’ tribute: “She lived her life as she pleased, my Rebecca. No wonder a man had to kill her.” Yet, the film mostly serves up the Rebecca of 1938 and 1940: a scarlet ghost who got her just deserts. There’s little made of ‘my Rebecca’ as well—the suggestion of sexual longing between Danvers and Rebecca was laid out far more explicitly by Hitchcock, who had the housekeeper rattle her new mistress by showing her Rebecca’s underwear and recalling how she’d talk to her while she undressed.

When Wheatley does take a chance, he doesn’t go far enough. There’s a dream sequence with Mrs de Winter swallowed by creepers in the hallway that’s over quickly and too cleanly. More elaborate is the costume ball, where she’s first humiliated by her husband for wearing a gown similar to one Rebecca did, and then seemingly loses her grip on reality. The party turns into a Argento-ish nightmare, with revellers surrounding her chanting ‘Rebecca, Rebecca’—a phantom fragment of a sillier, livelier adaptation.

As the bounder Jack Favell, Sam Riley is so at ease in his villainy that he makes Maxim’s moodiness even less attractive. Between Hammer’s effortful brooding and James’ tremulousness, this is a sympathetic but uninspiring lead pair. After they’ve barely outmaneuvered him, Favell asks the couple, “I bet you think you’ve won, don’t you?”. Neither of them looks at all convinced they have.

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