Author Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was published in 1938 and since then, it has been adapted numerous times. But only one that warrants to be remembered is Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1940 version, starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier as the lead characters Mrs. de Winter and Maxim de Winter. The excellence of the film can be judged by the fact that it won the Best Picture Academy Award. Such glowing statistics makes it hard to not compare any later iterations of the novel with Hitchcock’s version, which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca that just released on Netflix– to say it’s sub-par would be a gross understatement.
It seems almost a crime to pick up a classic when one has no intention of improving upon it or adding elements that will stand out. Wheatley is too obsessed with presenting and stylizing his plot to notice how brooding and dull it ends up being with a cast (sans Kristen Scott Thomas) who just can’t shoulder the responsibility of adding the spark Rebecca version 2.0 needs to float. But even if we quit comparing it to its impressive ancestor, Wheatley’s adaptation still flutters and stutters through its first half and despite the plot following the novel climactic twist, it is equally uneven.
In Wheatley’s version, it’s Lily James and Armie Hammer in the roles formerly played by Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Unnamed, just like in the novel, James plays the part of a young English woman who is an orphan and working for the insanely rich Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who leaves no chance to remind her how unlike the elite she is. But then sweeps in our knight in shining armour, the tall, dark and handsome Maxim de Winter (Hammer) who is an aristocrat+ and a widower. He is instantly taken by James’ character and thus begins a whirlwind romance.
There are tons of expensive restaurants, long drives with scenic views of the coast, languishing on the beach etc in the first half of the film. The book and its later cinematic adaptation focused on the mystery that came next, but Wheatley seems oddly fixated on presenting an elite romance full of dramatic cliches that often transcends the time period the story is set in.
And soon, she become the second Mrs. de Winter– before falling for Lily James’ character, Maxim was married to a seemingly perfect woman named Rebecca who is now dead. The new Mrs. de Winter is whisked away by Maxim to his remote but massive estate, Manderley, along the English coast.
While there are a string of staff members and househelp that Maxim has, only one is of any real importance– the aloof and cold Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has an air of mystery around her and obvious dislike for the new misus. While Danves is always around to remind the latest Mrs. de Winter’s that she can never match up to the potential of Maxim’s first wife, every corner of the estate breathes with the presence of Rebecca, often to the point that it starts becomes a grating annoyance everyone anything with a big R is stuck in the scene.
Wheatley is, undoubtedly, aiming to create a ghostly presence of a woman who haunts the living even in death but it is done so much that it ends up being pointless rather than mysterious. And for those who have seen Hitchcock’s version will not only be irritated by the repetition but also by the blandness of it.
So, yeah the cinematography deserves all the plus points for making Rebecca a scenic beauty (kudos go to Laurie Rose and Sarah Greenwood) but when it comes to the pace and depiction of a fairly exceptional plot, Wheatley, even Lily James and Hammer, simply disappoint. The only saving grace of the film is Kristen Scott Thomas who is liking the living definition of the Ice Queen as even her delivery of withering glances are enough to chill you to the bone.