Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Tom Goodman-Hill, John Hollingworth
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Lily James and Armie Hammer take on the roles played by Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning film “Rebecca” based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. In the new remake from director Ben Wheatley, the gothic love story gets a fresh makeover that brings it into the light and out of the dark ambiance that enveloped Hitchcock’s adaptation. Still, there are a few creepy moments and Kristen Scott Thomas steals the show as the menacing Mrs. Danvers (played by the terrific Judith Anderson in the original).
One can argue that Wheatley’s version is a different monster. For one, it’s in color and beautifully shot by cinematographer Laurie Rose (his 8th collaboration with the director). Stunning backdrops and colorful wardrobes are pleasing to the eyes. Hitchcock’s was cold, dark, and void of bright light. Second, this version is closer to du Maurier’s novel, which she didn’t consider a love story. There are a few love scenes between James and Hammer, but the passion is toned-down, and I mean passion, not sex. Fontaine and Olivier exuded a fervor that can’t be replicated in the present or it comes off as phony. If Lily James were to recite the line “Whenever you touched me, I knew you were comparing me with Rebecca” while clutching Armie Hammer, it would sound so over the top today even though we are in the same period as the original film.
James plays the film’s unnamed narrator, no sense in giving her a name since she basically lives in the shadow of Rebecca’s ghost, who, as the story begins, is seen working as a lady’s companion to the prickly Mrs. Van Hopper (perfectly cast Ann Dowd). The two are in Monte Carlo where they run into aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Hammer), a widower still grieving the loss of his wife Rebecca six months earlier.
Van Hopper wants to climb up the social ladder and senses an opportunity to hobnob with de Winter, so she sends her companion down to bribe the maître d' to seat her with the rich aristocrat. He just happens to be standing right behind James as she attempts to grease the wheels which leads to an awkward but funny first encounter between Hammer and James.
One thing leads to another and rather quickly a whirlwind romance develops between our narrator and de Winter. They fall in love while enjoying the French Riviera, he proposes and they’re off to Manderley, his English mansion by the sea. The lavish estate featured in the film is the historic Hatfield House, former home to the Cecils and Queen Elizabeth I. It’s also the mansion featured in 2018’s “The Favourite” from director Yorgos Lanthimos.
In Hitchcock’s adaptation, it appeared that Mr. and the new Mrs. de Winter were arriving at the haunted Hill House instead of Manderley, which was shrouded in darkness. In Wheatley’s film it feels like the couple has arrived at Downton Abbey, a stark contrast in tone between the two adaptations. The staff is out front to greet the couple, but no one seems excited about meeting the new lady of the house, especially Mrs. Danvers (Scott Thomas), Manderley’s rigorous housekeeper.
The ghost of de Winter’s first wife Rebecca is everywhere. The former bedroom she shared with Mr. de Winter is practically a shrine. Her monogrammed clothing, personal items, and letters are strewn about the mansion as if the late Rebecca never left. Of course, it’s a lot for James’ character to swallow as she begins competing with Rebecca’s spirit, kept alive by the conniving Mrs. Danvers.
It’s been 80 years since Hitchcock’s award-winning masterpiece and even though enough time has gone by to warrant a do-over, there are some films that you shouldn’t touch; “Rebecca” is one of them.
However, Wheatley’s film works best when you don’t compare it with Hitchcock’s — I suppose anyone who hasn’t seen the 1940 film will enjoy this new adaptation the most — but while it seems diluted by the classic film’s standards, this new adaptation stands its own ground.
“Rebecca” features solid performances by Lily James and Armie Hammer who do the best they can with the diluted screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a commanding performance, but Wheatley’s new ending does no service to her character; This is one point where the film should have held back. It’s satisfying but not filling.
(2 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters and streaming on Netflix.