Remakes. You can’t live with them. Yet, Hollywood can’t live without them. There’s much to be said, and those who know me know that I have opinions. I, historically, have had lots of opinions on remakes. Though, when Netflix announced a remake of the classic novel and equally classic Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca, I was rather intrigued. It hits the streamer this week and here’s what you need to know.
Rebecca follows an unnamed young woman (Lily James). She’s working as a ladies companion in Monte Carlo when she meets and falls madly in love with widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). The two marry after their whirlwind romance and he whisks her back to Manderley, his massive Gothic mansion. The new Mrs. de Winter struggles to acclimatize to her massive new home and the rather icy staff, led by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas). She quickly learns more about her predecessor (the titular “Rebecca”), and that her new husband didn’t tell the complete truth about her death. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, as well as the classic 1940 Hitchcock work of the same name. Ben Wheatley directs this newest take from a script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.
Full disclosure, a movie like Rebecca comes with some baggage. Cinema and in particular remakes don’t exist in a vacuum. I will call myself a fan of Hitchcock’s version of Rebecca and have also read the book, though it has been a while. So, that will color this review. Those who aren’t familiar with the source material will undoubtedly have a different reading. That being said, there will be spoilers later, but you’ll have warning!
Jumping right on in, there is one thing which can easily be said about Rebecca. Visually, the movie is absolutely luscious with a capital L. The film is most definitely a treat to watch beginning with absolutely stunning costume design by Julian Day. The artist has been moving across genres, making his name on works like Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Day creates a vivid and glamorous image of pre-World War II Europe, each costume a feast for the eyes. In fact, the man should receive awards consideration for the fact that he makes Armie Hammer’s mustard yellow suit work.
Along the same lines, the crafting on the sets is equally as immaculate working with the glamorous worlds of the film. Manderley in particular is beautifully conceptualized, capturing the elegant English manor house in not only it’s bright, old world beauty, but its nightmarishness.
Spoilers Ahead. You’ve Been Warned.
Unfortunately, Rebecca doesn’t have the strength to stand on its own two feet. Its marketing in recent weeks has made it clear the feature should be considered a remake of du Maurier’s novel rather than Hitchcock’s feature film. That being said, watching Rebecca only served to emphasize where it lags behind the 1940 movie, conjuring memories of something this version is unfortunately light years behind.
The script struggles to wrap its head around just how to handle Maxim as a character. The first act finds the narrative very invested in crafting the romance between the aristocrat and his future wife. While she hears hushed whispers from other sources (Ann Dowd) that de Winter has some substantial baggage (in the form of his dead wife), his struggles aren’t seen in this version. The couple are young, happy and oh-so blissfully in love.
As the narrative progresses and they return to Manderley, de Winter’s character morphs with jarring speed. Suddenly, he’s haunted and aggressive. He’s sleepwalking. Is his behavior due to the specter of Rebecca in this centuries old house? Unfortunately, it’s never made clear as Hammer struggles to layer in the needed depth in order to truly understand this man.
Maxim’s lack of depth becomes a greater hindrance into the third act as the details of Rebecca’s death come to light. The movie follows the novel more closely at this point. Maxim allowed his wife to goad him into shooting her through the heart. In 1940, Hitchcock tweaked the revelation, instead describing Maxim as striking his wife and she died after hitting her head.
At the same time, Wheatley’s version makes another subtle shift deep into the third act, placing the new Mrs. de Winter into the narrative driver’s seat. As the inquisition into Rebecca’s death comes to an end and Maxim’s obvious motive in her death becomes clear, he’s thrown in prison. Thus, his wife is left to conduct the final stages of the investigation on her own. In previous versions, she’s either been accompanied by Maxim, while in others Maxim brings things to a close on his own. There is also a closing scene added meant to give Mrs. de Winter more agency. She’s doing this for love after all!
In the grand scheme of things, this feels like a shallow ploy to make this narrative play a little better in a contemporary #MeToo era. Rebecca is still a narrative which hasn’t named its main character. This hasn’t changed this time out. While the filmmakers are desperate to give this unnamed character some modern agency, this woman is still working to get the man she barely knows off for the murder of his first wife. With all of these factors working together, the ending feels distracting. Perhaps this isn’t the story to try and bring a contemporary flair to a Gothic tale.
It’s difficult to judge the other performances in the film as these actors each have massive shoes to fill. Kristin Scott Thomas is a master craftsman and a recognized grand dame of the highest order. However, her take on Ms. Danvers pales in comparison to Dame Judith Anderson’s iconic take on the character. The same is true with Sam Riley as Jack Favell and Tom Goodman-Hill as Frank Crawley. Ultimately, while each of these performers did what they could, Rebecca isn’t able to break out of the shadow of its far more interesting predecessor.
All in all, it’s a struggle to gauge how Rebecca will go over for viewers unfamiliar with the source material. Rebecca is a stunningly beautiful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name. At the same time, there are some great performances here. These are talented and magnetic actors and this is well worth the time for fans of these actors. However, with that being said, Rebecca comes with some definite baggage for those in the classic film community and might require a certain tempering of expectations.
Rebecca is streaming on Netflix now.