Ben Wheatley’s lavish take on Rebecca, though truer to Daphne du Maurier’s novel, can’t help but be overshadowed by the iconic Hitchcock version.
Gone but not forgottenby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
This lavish 2020 version of Rebecca cannot be reviewed without acknowledging that the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 film hangs over Ben Wheatley’s interpretation in the same way that the late Mrs De Winter haunts the story.
The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel stays true to the source: the iconic opening line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” remains in place, the heroine is never named and we never see the face of the titular character.
While staying with her employer Mrs Van Hopper (Anne Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale) at a Monte Carlo hotel, a modest lady’s companion (Lily James, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) unexpectedly finds herself sharing a table with renowned aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name).
After bonding over an unplanned breakfast, a whirlwind romance blossoms, covered by the pretence of tennis lessons, and De Winter springs a surprise proposal to prevent his inexperienced young love from having to sail to New York with Van Hopper.
After marrying, the couple return to England and the new Mrs De Winter suddenly finds herself in the role of lady of the manor at the stately De Winter Manderley estate where she is undermined at every step by the severe housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient) who was utterly devoted to the late Mrs De Winter.
Soon the heroine finds that Manderley is thoroughly haunted by the late mstress and that Rebecca’s presence and influence is everywhere from her personalised stationery, embossed handkerchiefs to her hair in a hairbrush.
Mrs De Winter becomes more and more determined to learn about her predecessor and thus the mystery and intrigue build before the spectacle of the Manderley ball and the discovery of Rebecca’s boat, which kicks off the drama and revelations of the third act.
Wheatley crafts a couple of unique point-of-view shots for the central character; being literally carried upside down into Manderley to reflect this cataclysmic change for her and then being claustrophobically locked within a dancing circle at the ball while bathed in the red and blue lights of fireworks.
The screenwriting team stays truer to the source material than the Hitchcock version in some of the dramatic details towards the end and has given one key character a different fate to that of the 1940 film.
Rebecca is beautifully shot with superb costume and production design greatly aiding the storytelling. Doubling for Manderley, Cranborne Manor in Dorset looks suitably spectacular.
The cast all do good work: Ann Dowd is almost unrecognisable as the insufferable Mrs Van Hopper, Keeley Hawes adds warmth to Maxim’s sister Beatrice – a rare friendly face for Mrs De Winter – and Sam Riley is suitably smarmy as the roguish Jack Favell.
Hammer certainly cuts a handsome figure as Maxim, and does excellent accent work, but lacks presence somehow in some of those key moments, where his eyes bulge in anger almost comically.
Initially James feels slightly too modern and confident as Mrs De Winter but warms into the role beautifully to become a most effective audience surrogate. Seeing her grow in confidence and stature at Manderley is truly satisfying.
But it is the perfectly cast Scott Thomas who steals the film as Mrs Danvers, showing utter distain for Mrs De Winter in the slightest tilt of her head or flick of her eyes. She also mines the great sadness of a woman mourning her beloved mistress.
Ultimately while Wheatley’s entertaining film may not add anything to the tale, if it brings a new audience to this terrific story then that can only be positive.
Rebecca is out now from 16 October 2020 on limited cinema release and streaming on Netflix from 21 October 2020 in the UK.