A big stumbling block when remaking a Hollywood screen classic is often the indelible ownership of an original star. Is there anyone alive who would choose Julia Ormond over Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina? Or Melanie Griffith over Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday? The problem with Netflix’s toothless redo of Rebecca is less about casting — although none of the principals is an ideal fit — than lack of a firm directorial imprint. Earlier films like Sightseers and Free Fire suggested Ben Wheatley might have the mordant wit to tackle a work forever associated with sardonic genre maestro Alfred Hitchcock. But in place of atmosphere and suspense, he delivers blandly glossy melodrama.
Uneven pacing aside, the new Rebecca is perfectly watchable and by no means badly acted. It’s a handsome production even if few of the design elements conjure the gothic roots of the material, and some of the styling choices, particularly in the establishing romantic scenes in Monte Carlo, seem off.
Netflix appears to be attempting to circumvent the inevitable Hitchcock comparisons by stressing that this is not a remake so much as a fresh adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s beloved 1938 novel. But that would require a more incisive modern perspective than the pedestrian overhaul of Jane Goldman’s screenplay, with additional input from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. The evidence is particularly scant here that the director in any way connects with his material.
There’s a hint of 21st century attitudes in the fortification of the heroine’s trajectory as an innocent mouse who comes through her gaslighting ordeal a more assertive, self-possessed woman. The class and wealth divides that feed her initial sense of inferiority also are heightened. And the age difference between the main characters is lessened, removing the now uncomfortable suggestion of an impressionable girl filling the loss of her father with a daddy-husband, as was the case with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in 1940 despite them being just 10 years apart.
But while this retelling sticks closer to du Maurier’s original text than the Hitchcock film, it’s no more successful at supplanting the memory of that version than the pair of polished British TV miniseries that ran on PBS in 1979 and 1997. Like the unseen first Mrs. de Winter who gives the work its title, Hitchcock’s beguiling Best Picture Oscar winner refuses to be outshone.
The unnamed protagonist who eventually becomes the second Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) is working as a paid traveling companion to gossipy American moneybags Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in 1930s Monte Carlo when she encounters dashing upper-crust British widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer).
He’s a solitary type, resistant to pushy Mrs. Van Hopper’s efforts to draw him into her orbit. But when the older woman gets laid up in bed with a stomach bug, Maxim strikes up a friendship with her young employee. A whirlwind romance ensues, and when Mrs. Van Hopper recovers and attempts to whisk her off to New York, Maxim steps in with a marriage proposal.
Already, there are elements that don’t sit right. While James goes through the motions of playing shy and unsophisticated, her chic wide-legged trousers and floppy sunhat make her look right at home on the Riviera as she skips out on beach dates with Maxim. And brooding isn’t Hammer’s forte, so he looks more like a cosmopolitan playboy in his golden linen suit than a man still tormented by the loss of his wife less than a year earlier. His neutral British accent gets by but hardly suggests Maxim’s posh background. Even the usually reliable Dowd is wasted, coming across as a mean shrew in a role others have milked for arch humor.
The story gets more intriguing when Maxim takes his new wife back to Manderley, the impressive pile of bricks on the Cornish coast that has been in his family since Tudor times. While the new Mrs. de Winter is still gawping at great halls full of plush furnishings and towering portraits, she gets a frosty welcome from Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the haughty housekeeper who came to Manderley with the late Rebecca. She wastes no time throwing shade when the new mistress of the house confesses she’s out of her element: “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d been a lady’s maid.”
Much of the action churns around Mrs. de Winter’s nervous attempts to fit in while the sinister Mrs. Danvers slinks around looking quietly satisfied as each sign of Rebecca’s enduring presence rattles her successor. Maxim’s distractions with the running of the estate and his occasional moodiness don’t help, and his sleepwalking forays to the now-empty West Wing that he occupied with his late wife allow Wheatley a horror flourish or two.
That aspect gets cranked up in the costume ball, an overwrought spiral into creepy grotesquerie as Mrs. de Winter — wearing the dowdiest dress imaginable after her poor original costume choice triggers her husband’s trauma — gets jostled about by dancing swells while chasing what appears to be an apparition of Rebecca from room to room.
The piquant lesbian subtext that has made Mrs. Danvers a source of fascination to queer film theorists for decades — and Judith Anderson’s icily manipulative performance a high point of the Hitchcock film — gets somewhat more forthright treatment here. But only up to a point. The press notes describe the character as “misunderstood,” so the movie dances around her sexuality, leaving her unhealthy obsession with her former mistress open to interpretation. Dressed by costumer Julian Day in a form-fitting, almost militaristic suit that makes her look both severe and sensuous, Scott Thomas brings her usual aplomb to the role, smoldering with resentment beneath her character’s glacial veneer.
But Wheatley’s handle on the material pretty much disintegrates during the plodding final stretch, once the drowned Rebecca’s body turns up in her wrecked boat and questions concerning her death lead to an inquest in which suspicion falls on Maxim. The routine courtroom scenes slow the momentum to a crawl, robbing the story’s fiery climax of its heat. And James’ sudden display of spunkiness as Mrs. de Winter stands by her man feels more like a contemporary reading than part of a coherent character arc.
I don’t recall a moment where the damp chemistry between James and Hammer made me believe in a love apparently powerful enough to withstand so many tests. Which makes this a gothic romance in which neither of those elements takes hold.
The locations in England and France (standing in for Monte Carlo) are certainly picturesque, and cinematographer Laurie Rose shoots them with stately elegance. But the fear and tension so essential to the story are largely missing from the visuals, more often coming from Clint Mansell’s lush score.
The most impressive sequences are those in which the protagonist gains access to Rebecca’s palatial bedroom, kept exactly as it was with religious devotion by Mrs. Danvers. Production designer Sarah Greenwood’s anteroom is a dazzling hall of mirrors that literally makes the new Mrs. de Winter’s head spin. If only this low-impact thriller did a similar number on the viewer.
Production company: Working Title
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Ann Dowd, Sam Riley, Tom Goodman-Hill, Mark Lewis Jones, John Hollingsworth, Bill Paterson
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Executive producers: Amelia Granger, Sarah-Jane Robinson
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costume designer: Julian Day
Music: Clint Mansell
Editor: Jonathan Amos
Casting: Nina Gold