REVIEW – ‘Rebecca’ is a flat melodramatic soap opera

It’s always a foolhardy task to offer a new adaptation of a story that already scored an Academy Award for Best Picture. The disastrous bomb that was 2016’s Ben-Hur highlighted why it’s a dangerous idea. Likewise with the disappointing All the King’s Men in 2006 and the god-awful mess that was 2004’s Around the World in 80 Days. We’ll now have to wait another year to see if Steven Spielberg has somehow found a way to breath new life into ten-time Oscar winner West Side Story.

80 years after Alfred Hitchcock spun Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 Gothic novel, Rebecca, into the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture, we’re offered a new take by director Ben Wheatley that will undoubtedly face inevitable comparisons to Hitch’s haunting, atmospheric, and often underrated masterpiece. While this version of Rebecca remains more faithful to du Maurier’s novel, Wheatley delivers a flat melodramatic soap opera that plays more like an extended episode of Downton Abbey than a suspenseful psychological thriller.

Beginning in the summer of the late 1930s in Monte Carlo, we meet a shy young woman (Lily James) working as the “lady’s companion” of the overbearing Mrs. Van Hopper (a brief but typically fabulous Ann Dowd). Seeking to live the life she’s only read about in books, the young woman begrudgingly tolerates the constant berating she endures from her demanding mistress.

With Mrs. Van Hopper bedridden with an extreme hangover, the young woman is free to explore the lavish seaside hotel, leading to a chance encounter with wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), who takes an instant shine to her sweet naiveté. After numerous dates dotted all over Monte Carlo, the pair are hastily married, with Maxim whisking the new Mrs. de Winter off to Manderley, his imposing lavish family estate on the English coast.

An expansive manor filled with dozens of rooms and an endless array of servants and handmaids who appear to avoid their new mistress like the plague, the inexperienced Mrs de Winter bumblingly attempts to adjust to her new life of excess. However, her efforts to settle at Manderley are constantly confounded by the inescapable presence of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca, who mysteriously drowned one year earlier.

Beloved by all who knew her, Rebecca’s legacy still lingers in every inch of Manderley, particularly her private bedroom, which has been kept just as she left it by the sinister head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (a terrifically icy Kristin Scott Thomas). Determined to erase Rebecca’s stranglehold on Manderley, Mrs. de Winter battles against both the shadow of Maxim’s dearly departed wife and the gaslighting attempts of Mrs. Danvers to keep her former mistress’ memory alive and force the young bride from the grounds for good.

With sumptuously elaborate production design by Rebecca Greenwood, Manderley is a gorgeous Gothic creation, filled with dark hallways and menacing features that create a haunting experience on a visual level alone. It’s a shame Wheatley’s direction and the lifeless screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse can’t deliver any semblance of tension or suspense to match the ominous visuals. For a film dripping in Gothic sensibilities, the final product is unfortunately underwhelming and feels like a terribly wasted opportunity.

It may be unfair to compare this adaptation to Hitchcock’s effort, but it was always going to be an impossible task to match a film created by a genuine master of this genre. Hitchcock was able to establish a gripping level of suspense throughout his entire film, while Wheatley just cannot seem to find it. Still, Rebecca is mildly entertaining enough to retain your interest, with the occasional unsettling sequence thrown in to spice up the dour narrative. Yet, it’s all rather forgettable and leaves the barest of impressions.

The film’s fatal flaw is the casting of James, who brings her typically charming sweetness to a role that requires more guts to truly land any impact. It’s not entirely James’ fault, with Mrs. de Winter written as a timid fool who spends the majority of the film whimpering around Manderley like a bad smell everyone is attempting to eradicate, including her once-besotted husband. It should be a performance brimming with paranoia, but it’s simply not there. Her character arc is horribly forced and inauthentic, casting James as an unlikeable protagonist who is difficult to cheer for. When she finally finds her strength and fights back, it all just falls completely flat.

Hammer tries his utmost to elevate Maxim beyond the conservative bore on the page, but there’s very little for the actor to grab hold of here. He’s perfectly cast as the dashingly handsome and exceedingly affluent widower, but his performance is muddled by messy writing that causes the actor to wildly fluctuate between charming lover and terrifying villain at the drop of a hat. Yes, there’s eventually reason to his ambiguous malevolence, yet, by the time the explanation arrives, you’ve likely stopped caring.

The saving grace proves to be Scott Thomas, who may be saddled with playing a silly cartoonish villain, but at least she runs with the premise and has a ball playing it bad. The icy stare of Mrs. Danvers could melt the flesh clean off your face and she hovers around this entire narrative like an ominous spectre on a mission to save the memory of her beloved Rebecca. Scott Thomas is deliciously menacing throughout, even if her character journey spirals out of control in the closing stages. Judith Anderson’s iconic Oscar-nominated performance in the 1940 adaptation was always going to be tough to beat, but Scott Thomas manages something equally unsettling.

For a film that held such promise, Rebecca can’t quite deliver on its macabre potential. The cast is there, as are the gorgeous visuals, but it just doesn’t quite stick. It’s too campy to be taken seriously, but not campy enough to be a silly piece of twisted fun. It seeks to capture the psychological terrors of du Maurier’s novel, but gets bogged down by soap opera-style antics that rob the film of its possible thrills. Rebecca is adequately enjoyable enough not to be a total waste of time, but it will leave you longing to seek out Hitchcock’s take to see how this tale should really be crafted.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Ben Crompton, Mark Lewis Jones, Jane Lapotaire
Director: Ben Wheatley
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Cinematography: Laurie Rose
Production Design: Sarah Greenwood
Costume Design: Julian Day
Music: Clint Mansell

Editing: Jonathan Amos
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: 21st October 2020 (Worldwide)

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