REBECCA: A Visually Striking Adaptation Does its Damnedest to Escape the Shadow of its Predecessors

While Ben Wheatley’s modern turn on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel pales in some respects to past incarnations, there’s much to admire in this vivid and psychologically charged return to Manderley

Much like how the memory of Rebecca De Winter lingers like a ghost among the living characters in her titular film, so does Rebecca’s previous incarnations hang over Ben Wheatley’s latest awards-season take of the story for Netflix. There’s a hubris in taking on everything from Du Maurier’s original novel to Hitchcock’s classic film that fits well with Ben Wheatley’s unabashedly experimental and cerebral filmography — and while this Rebecca may not wholly live up to the reputations of its predecessors, there’s much to love in its director’s take on a thrilling, engaging slice of seaside suspense.

The film follows an unnamed traveling companion (Lily James) who finds herself swept up in a Monte Carlo romance with Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer), the wealthy, recently-widowed owner of one of the most famous houses in Britain — Manderley. When their romance threatens to be cut short, Maxim brings his lover home as the new Mrs. De Winter, to the chilly reception of Manderley’s staff — presided over by the impenetrable, unshakable head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas). As The New Mrs. De Winter struggles to with the thrust-upon responsibilities of being the Lady of the House, she also contends with the inhumanly perfect reputation of her romantic predecessor, Rebecca De Winter— a woman idolized by everyone who remembers her. Such a long shadow draws Mrs. De Winter deeper into crippling isolation and paranoia — one that may or may not be deliberately fueled by those closest to her.

Wheatley’s take on Rebecca, working from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, injects a noticeable vitality into what has since been a more emotionally restrained manor drama. Taking as much influence from his previous sparse character dramas as it does from similar current films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread or Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, Wheatley and his scribes create a far more visually palpable air of paranoia and dread. There’s rarely a moment where we leave James’ point-of-view, which in well-balanced combination with Jonathan Amos’ quick-cut editing and Laurie Rose’s drifting, whip-focus cinematography, creates a persistent feeling of becoming increasingly untethered from an already anxiety-laden reality. Whether it’s the quickly averted eyes or hushed gossip from the surrounding staff, or a reoccurring murmuration of birds ominously lilting above Manderley, one can never be quite sure whether James’ anxieties are real or a hallucination. Wheatley’s Rebecca is one that eagerly explores the rich interiors of Mrs. De Winter’s psyche as visually as possible — one that gives a greater depth of characterization to a protagonist who, down to her lack of a given name, must fight for her own sense of agency and self-determination throughout the picture.

On that note, Lily James’ performance shines throughout Rebecca. Already having turned in near spotlight-stealing performances in Baby Driver, Yesterday, and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, James infuses the frailty of Mrs. De Winter with a modern feminist streak rebellion. While she threatens to fall victim to the subtle schemes of Mrs. Danvers, the pressure to live up to the unseen yet seemingly undead Rebecca, and the expectations of everyone else who crosses her path, James ensures that Mrs. De Winter’s arc isn’t one that’s wholly reactionary to the other characters, but one of increasing resolve to never become beholden to them. As such, James further separates Wheatley’s Rebecca from its past incarnations by pushing the identity crises of its main character further into a more well-rounded reclamation of her own personal agency.

Armie Hammer and Kristen Scott Thomas also turn in fine performances in their own right. Hammer’s Maxim is both stoic and cool while guarding a more tender, wounded interior. While this Maxim may lack the alluring passivity of Laurence Olivier’s De Winter, Hammer replaces it with a more brash, openly sexual machismo that can easily turn on a coin to a more visceral, violent temper that James grows to fight back against. Scott Thomas plays Mrs. Danvers as almost a mirror image to her employer, fiendishly guarding her memories of Rebecca as if they were among the valuable items she treasures in Rebecca’s former bedroom, which she repurposes as a morbid, color-drained shrine to the dead. Unlike Judith Anderson’s more brooding, subtly villainous turn, Scott Thomas’ Danvers is more openly mourning of her past charge, which finds its outlet in using the new Mrs. De Winter as a target for her rage. Each scene between James and Scott Thomas feels like a dangerously lopsided battle of wits, with Scott Thomas morphing between grieving mother, cruel superior, and scheming psychopath whenever is most convenient for her to take the upper hand.

Where Rebecca shines most, though, is its lush, visually-charged cinematography and production design, by former Wheatley collaborator Leslie Rose and Sarah Greenwood, respectively. This Rebecca relishes every opportunity to be in color, from the dazzling romance of the film’s Monte Carlo first act to the fire-lit inky shadows of Manderley’s cavernous halls. The newfound abundance of color also allows for many strikingly innovative moments of teamwork with the film’s costume design, as Mrs. De Winter increasingly blends into the walls of Manderley (notably in Rebecca’s former bedroom) as her identity seems to slip away. The world of Rebecca feels remarkably lived in as well, from the manor’s storied grounds, to a ramshackle boathouse nestled in a nearby seaside cliff, to the cobblestone streets of the tiny village both preside over. In a story wholly about the lingering effects of the past, each crevice of these settings feel like they possess their own untold stories — as if the secrets of Manderley were among many others kept hurriedly out of view.

The trouble with Rebecca, though, is in how much Wheatley and his script seem insistent on bringing all of the film’s secrets to light. While the film revels in the shifting troubled psyche of Mrs. De Winter, there isn’t much left to the audience’s imagination. A dizzyingly effective break in reality as she navigates a chaotic ballroom sequence is undercut by a nuance-free scene where the characters chant “Rebecca, Rebecca” to a trapped James; and where Hitchcock never felt pressured to show the titular character onscreen, opting for a more invisible presence brought out by Danvers and others’ remarks, James often dreams of a faceless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-her figure in a red dress — literalizing the source of her frequent anxieties, and in such a way that undercuts one of the film’s more climactic sequences.

They’re two sequences, in addition to a climactic confrontation between James and Scott Thomas, that speak to an overall urge in Rebecca to openly confront its more intriguing subtleties. In bringing all its secrets to light, however, Wheatley and his writing team rid much of Rebecca of its more fascinating ambiguities. We are given additional exposition into the nature of Danvers’ and Rebecca’s relationship, which leaves little to be desired — in addition to more explicit plot details involving the seedy Jack Favell (a deliciously hammy Sam Riley) that could have been easily inferred indirectly. While Rebecca’s lavish visual environment is a major boon for this version, its insistence on an equally no-stone-unturned approach to revealing its characters’ motivations does more harm to its aims than good. The most interesting ghosts of this Rebecca felt, well, far more dullishly tangible — like turning on a bedroom light to reveal that shadow in the corner to be nothing more than an awkwardly-placed chair.

It speaks to an almost lack of trust in its audience to fully catch on to the material, or worse, an attempt to distance itself from Rebecca’s predecessors by fleshing out their seemingly missing pieces. However, it’s the lack of that information that made those past versions most memorable. In the context of Wheatley’s past embrace of more elusive, ambiguous elements in films like Kill List and A Field in England, this proved extremely disappointing.

There’s still so much to like in Wheatley’s Rebecca, though — especially Wheatley’s beautiful externalization of his characters’ interior worlds, and how the film’s actors remain equally committed to giving a much more fleshed-out and complete arc to the roles they play. They allow Wheatley’s film to make its own unique mark, an ability questioned by some upon the project’s initial announcement. But literalizing much of Rebecca’s more salient ambiguities undercuts many of the film’s positive aspects. Given the greater success of its past incarnations, only time will tell if this impacts Rebecca’s ability to fully escape its ghosts.

Rebecca premieres globally on Netflix on October 21st, 2020.

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