That anyone would consider making a new film version of a noir novel already masterfully adapted by none other than Alfred Hitchcock is in itself the definition of hubris. Why bother?
The answer, of course, is because art is—by its own definition—open to interpretation. And so, filmmaker Ben Wheatley (Free Fire) has had a go at the story Rebecca, that of a mousy young newlywed, her new husband Maxim de Winter, and the dead first wife whose presence haunts their expansive English manor, Manderley. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says it’s a “better” interpretation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel than Hitchcock’s Best Picture winner, including here. But this is 2020, and the movies have come a long way from Hitchcock’s genre-defining turn nearly a century ago. Wheatley, with a cast that includes Armie Hammer (Maxim), Kristin Scott Thomas (manager of the house, Mrs. Danvers) and Lily James (the unnamed, new Mrs. de Winter), leans into style more than substance with his take on the dark tale, making a film quite gorgeous to look at even if it never sparks the sort of intense dread Hitchcock could summon so effortlessly.
The story, adapted by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, begins in brighter days; it’s the late 1930s, and the future Mrs. de Winter is a traveling companion to a wealthy American woman on holiday in Monte Carlo. Sun-drenched vistas in every direction, the young woman spends her time running errands for Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) and accompanying her to meals or on day trips. Mrs. Van Hopper informs her employee (and us) that Mr. de Winter is also staying at their grand hotel, desperately in need of some company since his wife’s tragic passing. After a meet-cute in the hotel restaurant, Maxim and the young woman find themselves crossing paths more frequently; when Mrs. Van Hopper comes down with an unfortunate case of food poisoning (or something), the two seize the opportunity to spend time together just the two of them, getting to know each other and falling in love. When Mrs. Van Hopper announces suddenly that she’s leaving and expects her maid to go with her, Maxim impulsively pops the question and just like that, the servant becomes the lady of the house.
All this prologue serves the rest of the film well, as it gives us time to invest in the relationship between Maxim and his new bride, to buy that they’ve fallen deeply in love, and quickly. Though James is a good actress, it’s not entirely guaranteed that she could have successfully carried both the weight of Rebecca’s looming presence and made us believe in her relationship with Maxim without the early scenes of their budding romance. Once they’ve wed, the tone of the film shifts completely, becoming something more like the noir drama we’ve come to expect. Mrs. Danvers, who’d worked for Rebecca since the first Mrs. de Winter was a girl, is deeply unimpressed by the new addition to the household, and one withering look from Thomas is enough to make the rest of the film, however underwhelming some may find it, worth seeing at least once.
Du Maurier’s novel—and therefore the screen adaptations—are all about the mystery of Rebecca, a woman never seen on screen but who looms large over everything from seemingly simple decisions on the day’s menu to an entire wing of the estate that’s been closed off since her death. Mrs. de Winter can’t seem to get any answers about her husband’s previous relationship, either from him or those who knew her predecessor, and so she seeks them out in the shuttered boathouse on the edge of the estate and through clues she discovers in rooms hidden from public view. As she gets closer to the truth, she and Maxim grow closer even as Mrs. Danvers gets ever more paranoid about this intruder’s potential influence on the household she lords over. There’s intrigue to be had here—particularly if one’s never seen the 1940 version (and why not?) and doesn’t know what’s coming—and Wheatley finds ways to ramp up the tension through pacing that cues us to an upcoming reveal, even if it’s never particularly earth-shattering.
The combination of Thomas’s icy performance against James’s doe-eyed one creates a much more compelling dynamic than anything between the de Winters themselves, as Hammer can’t be bothered to do more than simper about, lost between what he knows of his past relationship and what he’s trying to keep from his current one. That could be something to do with Hammer’s abilities, but likely more a factor of the film’s central focus; Maxim is never the protagonist here, instead a conduit to a much more compelling examination of the female ego. Some of the story’s inherent gothic nature is lost perhaps simply because the film is presented in color instead of the more brooding black and white of Hitchcock’s era; and yet, Wheatley and his team (particularly costumer Julian Day) seem to take this into account, creating a period piece so saturated in colors, from the warmth of Monte Carlo to the chilly art deco design of Rebecca’s living quarters, that one might accuse them of trying to make up for something.
This latest version of Rebecca will likely not go down in anyone’s history books as the definitive adaptation; certainly, until a talent greater than Hitchcock arrives behind the camera, his interpretation is likely safe. That said, Wheatley creates a more-than-watchable drama with plenty of tension in its own right, a lush period piece that could sit comfortably among other such technicolor adaptations in recent years, from Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice to Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.
Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix.