A central theme of Rebecca, if looked at from a certain point of view, is how expecting too much out of a new edition can be a road to ruin. The loyal servant Mrs. Danvers immediately dismisses the second Mrs. de Winter, knowing she could never measure up to the first. This (plus a lot of other shenanigans) leads to some fiery complications in this well-loved British gothic tale.
And yet despite the warning, I found myself falling into this trap. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s extremely successful 1938 novel, was brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock (he of the cinematic term “Hitchcockian”) in 1940, and it starred Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson. It won Hitchcock’s only best picture Academy Award. Those are very big monogrammed silk slippers to fill. Any regular subscriber to Turner Classic Movies has images from this motion picture branded on the brain, so if you want to do a remake you had best, as they say, come correct.
Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse do not, unfortunately, bring anything special to this new version. It is lifeless and unmeasured. To be fair, you can at least say it is pretty.
The furniture at Manderlay, the great Cornish house where the de Winters have lived for centuries, looks marvelous. And so does Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer in this version) especially in his mustard color suit while vacationing on the continent after the untimely death of his wife. It’s there where he meets an innocent (but book smart) paid traveling companion (Lily James) to an old biddie (Ann Dowd). Soon the two beautiful specimens are stealing away time in sports cars and romping through Mediterranean beaches. Next thing they are married and headed back to England.
“You know how she is, sir,” a butler says when the entire staff lines up to greet them. “There’s a way things are done at Manderlay.”
The she in question is the head of the domestic staff, the cold Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) obsessed with Rebecca, the first, and now departed, Mrs. de Winter. Thomas is a good bit of casting, but Wheatley never lets her sink her teeth into anything. In the original, Mrs. Danvers is terrifying and otherworldly just appearing in a room. Here she’s just another frowny servant lacking the zingers you’ll find in any halfway decent BBC production.
Hammer and James are for sure photogenic, but there isn’t all that much of a swoon-factor going on here. Their relationship is inert. Once Maxim starts acting odd at Manderlay, Hammer has none of the melancholy found in Olivier’s version. Okay, so I’m being unfair by constantly comparing, but even on its own it’s just an altogether dull affair. Nothing really happens. There’s one scene were Mrs. de Winter accidentally wears Rebecca’s old dress and there’s some shouting. If this happened to you in real life, sure, this would be a big deal, but in a movie — especially one that looks so expensive — you should demand more.
Wheatley does away with the supernatural vibe that’s supposed to linger in the sealed-off west wing, where the first Mrs. de Winter’s apartments are. Instead there are some shoehorned, computer-generated dream sequence images that feel leftover from a cheapo IFC Midnight horror flick. What a waste.
A full 80 minutes into this movie there’s a shift in Mrs. Danvers’s level of crazy that feels like maybe someone accidentally hit fast-forward. (I suspect some scenes were cut.) Then we get our first surprise twist and the story goes completely lopsided, racing through a courtroom scandal at a laughable speed. It’s as if the movie itself realizes that this just isn’t working and just wants to get this over with.
If I never heard of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and just caught this on Netflix I’d think it was merely a misfire. Some good actors in splendid outfits made a dud on some marvelous looking sets and locations. Hardly a crime. But considering this is a Netflix project, it seems like someone might have recognized there was a much more cost effective way to tell this story in a way that’s been proven to work: license the original.
TV Guide rating: 1.5/5
Rebecca premieres Wednesday, Oct. 21 on Netflix.