Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park Director: Ben Wheatley Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keely Hawes, Ann Dowd, Sam Riley, Tom Goodman-Hill, Mark Lewis Jones, Ben Crompton, Jeff Rawle, Bryony Miller, Jane Lapotaire, John Hollingsworth and Bill Paterson Distributor: Netflix
For films as well regarded as Alfred Hitchcock’s, there have been relatively few remakes of them, and even fewer remotely successful ones. Some, like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 scene-by-scene color version of “Psycho,” have incited virulent criticism. Even Hitchcock himself failed to equal his earlier accomplishment when he remade his 1934 “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in 1956.
Technically Ben Wheatley’s film of “Rebecca” isn’t a remake of Hitchcock’s classic 1940 movie, but just another version of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, which has been adapted for radio, television and the screen numerous times. The screenplay, credited to Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, sticks to the book pretty well—in some respects it’s more faithful to it than Hitchcock’s Oscar-winner was, in fact.
But in the most important respects it’s not just inferior to Hitchcock’s film, but to the essence of the novel, which was very much in the vein of most novels of the time about heroines who were very much helpless and dependent. Here the narrator, played by Lily James, doesn’t even seem to fit that description at the start, and then she’s given a story arc that by the end has transformed her into a formidable take-charge person who’s instrumental in saving her man—a distinctly contemporary depiction. In the hands of Wheatley, his writers and James, “Rebecca” has become something very like a typical Lifetime movie about a woman who by the close is dominant and decisive in a distinctly modern sense.
And the ending—or rather endings—that have been tacked on are particularly irritating. When one character has to utter a cliché like “You don’t have to do this” as another threatens an act of violence, you know you’re in trouble. Nor did we need the coda provided here.
Just for the record, “Rebecca” begins at Monte Carlo, where the mousy narrator (James) is accompanying the haughty Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd, amusingly nasty) as a paid companion. They meet handsome widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, not even attempting to sound very British and with a penchant for garish tangerine suits),who finds the young woman terribly attractive and proposes to her after a whirlwind courtship.
When they return to his palatial estate at Manderley, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, the most accomplished performer among the leading cast though still no match for her predecessor, the wonderfully imperious Judith Anderson) makes clear her condescension to the new Mrs. de Winter, attempting to undermine her at every turn out of a strange continuing devotion to the first wife, Rebecca, whose presence still hangs over the place.
The plot gradually turns into a mystery of sorts about how Rebecca died and what sort of hold she still has over Maxim. Eventually the issue of whether her death was accidental or the result of foul play throws suspicion on Maxim, thanks especially to the scheming of Rebecca’s favorite cousin Jack Favell (played in the earlier film by the deliciously reptilian George Sanders, and here in much more dully caddish fashion by Sam Riley). There’s a twist that won’t be revealed here, but suffice it to say that it’s handled much better in Hitchcock’s film than either the book or this version, which leave open the question of how stupid the authorities could be in determining a cause of death.
This “Rebecca” is very pretty to look at, with elegant production and costume design (Sarah Greenwood and Julian Day, respectively) and glossy cinematography (Laurie Rose), all accentuated by Clint Mansell’s swooning score. The effects at the close are also okay, though hardly top-drawer.
But the acting achieves neither the ardor nor the tension it should—James and Hammer never register true combustibility, while as Danvers Thomas comes across more spiteful than demonic—the indelible Anderson made the housekeeper far more frightening. And the supporting cast, while good enough, mostly pose Masterpiece Theatre-style, leaving the characters mere sketches. Wheatley’s staging of a ball that’s a turning point in the narrative, moreover, is conspicuously poor.
The 1940 “Rebecca” is far from Hitchcock’s best film (and it features one of Laurence Olivier’s worst performances—pinched and stilted—leaving him out-acted by a mile by Joan Fontaine), although it was the only one recognized with a major Oscar. (He pointed out that it was for the producer, David O. Selznick, rather than him.) But it comported with, and transferred to the screen, the sense of fragility the director later observed was expected in the “feminine literature” of the period. This new version makes the second Mrs. De Winter too “modern” a woman entirely, and so undermines the period feel that “Rebecca” should have, but in this case, despite all the period trappings, doesn’t.
So unless you’re allergic to films in beautiful black-and-white, Hitchcock’s sumptuous, hypnotic “Rebecca” wins hands-down over this lushly appointed but rather dull and compromised replacement.