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.
It takes a brave filmmaker to remake Alfred Hitchcock, let alone taking on the only one of the Master of Suspense’s films to have claimed the Best Picture award at the Oscars. That has not deterred Ben Wheatley, a filmmaker who I’ve found to be very hit (‘Sightseers’, ‘Free Fire’) and miss (‘High Rise’, ‘Kill List’) in the past, from taking a stab at a new version of ‘Rebecca’. The good news is that this isn’t as bad as Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of ‘Psycho’, but it’s not particularly good either and in light of Hitchcock’s stellar previous version of Daphne de Maurier’s source material, it feels incredibly unnecessary and a waste of the talent involved in the production.
For those unfamiliar with the story, ‘Rebecca’ is a gothic romance by way of a psychological thriller about a recently married young woman (Lily James), who finds herself overshadowed by the memory of her new husband’s dead first wife (the ‘Rebecca’ that gives the story its title). After a brief honeymoon (which provides some great location shots), the film moves to the large estate of Manderley, where the young woman has to contend with her now distant husband, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), and the cold housekeeper who is still devoted to Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott-Thomas, in the film’s best casting). It’s a cracking story and the novel is well worth a read, but like Rebecca casting a large shadow over the new Mrs. de Winter, so too does Hitchcock’s superb adaptation cast a massive shadow over Wheatley’s vision and I could never get past that. It’s not similar enough to tap into the same well, nor is it distinct enough to justify its own existence.
There are elements of a good film here, from the production design to solid casting, but it did leave me questioning why exactly Wheatley wanted to tackle this story. It’s very much what I’ve come to expect from some of the lesser Netflix efforts in that it’s very glossy and polished, and in this case that’s to the detriment of the story of ‘Rebecca’. In Wheatley’s vision, Manderley is well preserved and as immaculate as any great house you’ll see on screen (whether it be ‘Downton Abbey’ or a host of period films), whereas the story demands Manderley to a place of decay and ruin, that has fallen into disrepair with the passing of Rebecca – without this, the gothic elements of the story are downplayed and it has a damaging effect on the film’s atmosphere and mood. Why adapt a classic gothic romance by removing as much of the gothic elements you can get away with?
I confess I’ve fallen into the trap of reviewing this film by nature of comparison, which is something I would generally try to avoid, but when the shadows of such fine works as de Maurier’s novel and Hitchcock’s classic movie hang over the top of this particular story, it’s hard to get away from it, particularly when this adaptation is so inert, and to be honest, pointless. Dig out the Hitchcock version instead – you’ll be in for a real treat then!
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ann Dowd, Tom Goodman-Hill, Sam Riley, Keeley Hawes, Mark Lewis Jones and Bill Paterson