Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance novel of the same name. The problem is, there is nothing very gothic about Wheatley’s version, which comes across as melodrama more than anything.
Rebecca follows an unnamed narrator (Lily James), who is a lady’s companion to a rather wretched lady, Mrs Van Hopper, portrayed with appropriate malice by Ann Dowd (cue Aunt Lydia vibes). She meets Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower who is handsome and charming, though he still seems rather preoccupied with his dead wife.
After a whirlwind romance, the pair return to Manderley, Maxim’s sprawling estate, where the new Mrs De Winter suddenly realises that she has big shoes to fill, faced with the constant reminder of Rebecca in every facet of Manderley. Even her rooms and things are untouched, kept in pristine condition by Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), Manderley’s housekeeper.
The novel is called Rebecca for a reason – she never makes an actual appearance, but her presence is always felt, a looming, overwhelming shadow that suffocates the current Mrs de Winter. There are some trippy visuals conjured to reflect the nightmarish world of her dreams or her inner feelings, but these aren’t prevalent spaces that the movie sets up. Most of the time we are treated to bright scenic spaces of Manderley, and the rooms are also blandly furnished. There isn’t a necessity to create some haunted manor, but the space does nothing for the atmosphere.
The other problem is the performances of James and Hammer. We know that the pair can act, but it is clear that there simply isn’t enough direction for either one of them. James is just not believable as a woman in psychological turmoil, and her presence comes across more strongly in the later part of the film, when her character becomes more assured and forthright in her manner.
Hammer is skilled at playing the charming gentleman, but struggles when trying to communicate the darker parts of Maxim’s character. The film somehow rationalises what he did, instead of trying to play up the horror of it all. Thomas is perhaps the only actor who fits her character like a glove – her love for Rebecca and the despair that envelopes her due to her loss is well communicated. From the moment the new Mrs de Winter walks into Manderley, she makes it abundantly clear that this woman will simply never measure up to her beloved Rebecca.
There is of course a commentary on social class here, given that Rebecca is a woman of status and the new Mrs de Winter was in service before she married Maxim. I suppose we are supposed to feel that from the dowdy dresses James wears (don’t even get me started on the ugly suit that Hammer wears for the entirety of the film), and her fumbling ways when it comes to running a household, but as opposed to sympathizing with her, she just comes across as unlikeable.
The film is also devoid of passion. All we get is a couple of back scratches during their lovemaking scenes, and Wheatley fails to bring Rebecca into their bed space. The new Mrs de Winter is supposed to be inexperienced in the bedroom, with sexual jealously a major feature in her relationship with Maxim, plagued with the constant feeling that she is unable to measure up to Rebecca in all ways. This is why she wants to get fancy lingerie, or why it is such a big deal that Maxim sleepwalks to Rebecca’s bedroom. Without that context, none of these moments register as anything meaningful.
Mrs de Winter’s greatest fear is that she will lose Maxim to the memory of Rebecca, but this was never really made palpable in the film. For a director like Wheatley, who has always made bold choices as a filmmaker, Rebecca is a surprising product. But given that the man is about to direct the sequel to The Meg, I guess maybe this isn’t so surprising after all.
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Ben Wheatley's Rebecca is a tame recreation of the original gothic novel, sending us into sprawls of boredom rather than flights of fancy.
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