For a long time, it felt like I was the only person on the internet rooting for Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca. Both its announcement and its trailer drop garnered universal derision on Twitter dot com, mostly stemming from the fact that Wheatley, in his utter foolishness, had the gall to remake a Hitchcock movie.
“But he isn’t,” I whispered to no one. “Rebecca was a book first!” Sure, some detractors knew that, but no one really seemed to care. The casting was wrong. The director? Wrong. (Hard to argue with that, as we’ll come to see.) The costumes and its sexy new vibe, also wrong. Why bother retreading hallowed ground when someone as beloved as Hitchcock had already gifted cinephiles and bibliophiles alike a definitive version of the source material?
Some remakes or new adaptations get that reaction from me, but most don’t. I love seeing new interpretations of stories I love, whether it’s a nine-hour expansion of The Turn of the Screw with The Haunting of Bly Manor (which lovingly names its protagonist after the director of The Innocents, another beloved and virtually untouchable classic), Shakespeare-turned-teen-comedy like 10 Things I Hate About You or something as straight as Wheatley’s Rebecca. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly fascinating, even when the adaptation itself fails.
So it’s a shame to say that, yes, ultimately Wheatley’s Rebecca does fail, but not for the reasons The Internet supposed when it decided to pre-hate the movie. It fails because it is actually a perfect adaptation of Rebecca — the novel by Daphne du Maurier, not the 1940 film by Alfred Hitchcock — until it suddenly isn’t.
One point in its favor (and which carries the whole film) is the excellent cast, supported by a script from Jane Goldman that understands the characters in ways that sometimes become a little eroded when making the transition from page to film. Lily James’s earnestness serves her well as the second Mrs. de Winter, and beneath her worldly inexperience and debilitating imposter syndrome is a distinct personality. Too often these adaptations leave you asking the question, “Why would Maxim ever look twice at her?” but this one makes it abundantly clear that there is more to this solitary naif than meets the eye, and that is why Maxim loves her.
And regarding Maxim: I enjoy Armie Hammer as an actor about as much as I enjoy other people dunking on him (which is to say: a lot). He is boring but he is also tall, and against the latter I am sadly powerless. That said, he does a good job here, imbuing Maxim de Winter with a warmth that makes his refusal to speak about his deceased first wife and his growing coolness towards his second that much more effective as the story progresses. Casting Maxim as a younger man is also an unexpected stroke of genius from Wheatley. In the year 2020, I am definitely not interested in rehashing the usual condescending paternalism Maxim deploys against the second Mrs. de Winter, and it’s refreshing that this version replaces it with a genuine and clear love that is often absent in various portrayals of their relationship.
If anyone disappoints, it is — bizarrely — Kristin Scott-Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Her performance itself is appropriately chilling, but it is also missing the queer subtext that makes Mrs. Danvers the most iconic character in any version of Rebecca. This is a problem on a script level, though, and not any fault of Scott-Thomas’s. Almost as if they actively decided not to go the classic Danny route, Goldman and Wheatley instead portray her as more of a spiteful schemer than a woman driven mad by grief, which robs significant meaning from her destructive choices as the film speeds towards its inevitable conclusion.
And that, in the end, is the problem with Rebecca. Two-thirds of it are a finely crafted character piece that give as much credence to the impenetrable divide between the British working class and the aristocracy as it does to Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter’s romance. In fact, for much of its runtime, the film understands that you can’t have one without the other because class informs so much of the second Mrs. de Winter’s feelings about Rebecca’s lingering presence in Manderley. It isn’t a traditional ghost that haunts her new home’s halls, but a ghost of perceived perfection — Rebecca, with her perfect breeding, perfect beauty, perfect taste and perfect life, to which the second Mrs. de Winter can barely compare. But as soon as the film shifts into more of a plot-based thriller, it loses sight of what made it so interesting in the first place.
Honestly, the same could be said of the Hitchcock movie, though Wheatley’s crimes against the novel are certainly more egregious. Superfluous situations are added to heighten the tension and drama (which achieve neither), and what should be a tragic and eerie climax is ruined by a serious and unnecessary deviation from Mrs. Danvers’ downfall. Indeed, the last third of the movie is so rote and uninspiring that it unfortunately renders the entire thing a waste of time.
I won’t say this is one of the most significant bummers of my lifetime. It’s more of a light bummer because it’s not like no one saw this coming, even me. I wanted this new version of Rebecca to be a good one, but the fact that Ben Wheatley of all people is the one who got to make it speaks volumes about its fizzling failure. Wheatley has never deserved the excellent casts he assembles in his films, and he’s never been able to stick the landing on any of the promising concepts he’s been fortunate enough to direct. Someone with a little more vision besides “not Hitchcock” should’ve gotten the chance to direct this one. What I wouldn’t give for Manderley to get the Hill House / Bly Manor treatment.
Long story short, then? Turns out the internet had the right idea about new Rebecca! What a little fool I am, being hopeful about anything.