THE STORY – A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.
THE CAST – Lily James, Armie Hammer & Kristin Scott Thomas
THE TEAM – Ben Wheatley (Director), Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” the second Mrs. de Winter says early on in Ben Wheatley’s new film, “Rebecca.” It’s a piece of irony worthy of a literary adaptation as the character will spend the rest of the film haunted by the idea of her new husband’s first wife. The gothic romance’s screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse is for the most part surprisingly faithful to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel. This is not the 1940 Oscar-winning Alfred Hitchcock “Rebecca,” nor does it want to be; rather, it’s a new adaptation of the novel.
The film opens in Monte Carlo where the young and meek protagonist (Lily James; The protagonist is never named in the film, as in the novel) is working as a lady’s companion to the tacky American Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Dowd is fantastic in the role of the loud and brash woman who is determined to make a connection with wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). However, her companion soon catches Maxim’s eye and they share a whirlwind romance of drives along the coast and sightseeing while Mrs. Van Hopper is stuck in bed sick. This may be the strongest part of the film as the gorgeous production and costume design throughout the film are definitely on show.
To save her from having to follow Mrs. Van Hopper to America, Maxim impulsively proposes to Rebecca and they soon arrive at his ancestral estate Manderley as newlyweds. But back in England, the romance slips away and more layers begin unfolding as the second Mrs. de Winter must try to navigate her sudden ascension to the upper class and the memory of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca. She is immediately out of her element at Manderley, a beautiful but sometimes eerie house that seems to hold secrets. The fantastic score by Clint Mansell is very effective in building tension.
Though Rebecca has been dead for a year, she haunts the second Mrs. de Winter. She has visions of her in her dreams and sometimes even in her waking hours. She finds her handkerchief in her coat pocket. Everything from the stationary on her desk to her hairbrush to her husband first belonged to Rebecca. Rebecca’s icy blue and white rooms that she finds give an even more ethereal feel to the seemingly perfect woman. Maxim’s sister tries to comfort her, telling her that Rebecca was so charming that “Us mere mortals couldn’t hope to compete.” But secrets cannot last forever and the dramatic second half of the film feels far away from the sunny romance of the beginning.
When James and Hammer were cast, there were concerns about their appropriateness for the roles: she’s too pretty and glamorous for her role, he’s not old or stern enough for his. But both fit the de Winters much better than expected. James does a fantastic job at toning down her usual charm to play the bumbling and mousy second Mrs. de Winter. She’s very effective in showing the feelings of inadequacy that her character is plagued by and how she yearns for her new husband’s affection. While Hammer is perhaps warmer than Maxim is written at times, he does an excellent job of playing the reserved and entitled Englishman. His accent work is impressive and his voice suits the character well. Despite having a much smaller age gap than in the novel, the pair still manage to communicate the inequality in their relationship.
As soon as they arrive at Manderley, Maxim is more than happy to leave his new bride in the hands of his formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). “She’s not as scary as she seems,” he reassures his wife, but the opposite is true. Thomas does an excellent job of giving Mrs. Danvers depth and showing enough vulnerability in rare moments to save her from seeming completely evil. She’s chilling, giving appraising little looks and ensuring that the second Mrs. de Winter knows exactly how disappointing she finds her compared to her beloved Rebecca. Sam Riley plays the roguish Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, with the perfect unsettling suaveness.
The film thrives as an adaptation of the novel it’s based on, even opening with the iconic first line of the book, “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It maintains many little details from the book like the dog Jaspar and the second Mrs. de Winter telling Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s practicing tennis when she’s going out with Maxim in Monte Carlo. One of the best things that this film keeps from the novel that previous iterations have ignored is the class divide between Maxim and his new wife. Without overplaying it, they show in subtle ways how out of place she is in this new world from ordering oysters for breakfast because she’s never had them before to her clothing that’s just a touch too middle class to her uneasiness around the scores of servants. This film predictably plays up the romance between Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter. It’s a steamier “Rebecca” than its 1940 predecessor, but it works well and James and Hammer have the chemistry to pull it off.
The film is certainly not without flaws. Its first half is much stronger than its second and its bold ending is sure to alienate some hardcore fans of the book. There are little stylistic touches of Wheatley’s that won’t work for everyone, like short out of chronology shots and an intense ballroom scene. The film doesn’t fully lean into its horror or thriller aspects as much as some might have expected from this director, but there are some fantastic shots throughout from cinematographer Laurie Rose.
It’s unlikely that this new “Rebecca” will dethrone the 1940 film as the definitive version in many people’s minds. And yet, it’s a great adaptation of fantastic source material. The film seems to start as a normal period romance, but by the end is a fascinating tale of twisted morality, jealousy and love.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Gorgeous costume and production design elevate this gothic romance, along with very good performances and a great score.
THE OSCARS – None