While remakes and reboots are – perhaps deservedly so – controversial, literary adaptations are more complicated. The problem can come when there is one particular adaptation of a novel which is considered ‘classic’ or ‘definitive.’ That is very much the case with Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, which was adapted into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films in 1940. The problem with making a Rebecca adaptation, even 80 years later, is that many view it as a remake of that film, instead of another adaptation of the novel. This is the challenge facing British director Ben Wheatley, who is bringing his version of Rebecca to Netflix next week. The trailer was met with many howls of derision on social media, seemingly centering around the fact that it was so colourful, which again shows how indelible Hitch’s black-and-white film is in the popular imagination.
It also doesn’t help that the 1940 film starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, who very few modern movie stars have a chance of living up to. And while Judith Anderson’s name is less well-known, her Mrs Danvers is an all-time great film character. Wheatley has cast Armie Hammer (deliberately chosen for his matinee idol looks) as Maxim de Winter, Lily James as the second Mrs de Winter and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers. Comparing this film to Hitchcock’s masterpiece is obviously unfair, so it needs to be examined as both an adaptation of the novel and a standalone film.
Wheatley and screenwriter Jane Goldman (no stranger to Gothic worlds, as the writer of The Woman in Black, The Limehouse Golem and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) have wisely de-aged Maxim (Hammer was 33 at the time of filming) and also cast 30 year old Lily James as his love interest (although she is playing younger). This is much more comfortable than the almost 30 year age gap between Charles Dance and Emilia Fox in the 1997 TV mini-series adaptation (although that is more faithful to the book). It automatically makes Maxim more sympathetic (as a young widower) and makes the early Monte Carlo set scenes much more romantic. This is one of the strongest sections of Wheatley’s Rebecca, in no small part due to Ann Dowd’s deliciously snobby Mrs Van Hopper. Wheatley and Goldman establish that class is a much bigger factor than age in fueling the young Mrs de Winter’s insecurities and provides important context to the reaction she receives upon arrival at the infamous Manderley.
Mrs Van Hopper’s appalling snobbery is handed off, like a baton in a relay race, straight to Mrs Danvers, who makes zero effort to hide the fact that she is looking down her nose at the young bride. Surprisingly, Ben Wheatley, who is known for his horror films Kill List and Sightseers and crime drama Down Terrace doesn’t lean into Mrs Danvers’ sinister and creepy nature as much as you might expect. The pivotal confrontation scene in Rebecca’s bedroom is a bit of damp squib and there is not enough of an atmosphere of dread created. The central conceit of Rebecca is that the new Mrs de Winter literally feels haunted by the presence of her husband’s dead wife and that does not come across as strongly as expected.
Wheatley attempts to create Gothic atmosphere through the Maxim sleepwalking scenes and through the use of mirrors (a classic shorthand for creating a sense of disorientation and madness). Some better choices are made such as not showing Rebecca at all, through paintings, photographs or flashbacks, meaning that she is entirely a creation of Mrs de Winter’s imagination. The other positive is the shifting relationship of Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers. There’s a montage (which seems deliberately funny, unlike some of the more clunky moments) when they’re planning the ball together, giggling like conspiratorial school-girls and Kristin Scott Thomas does an excellent job of conveying Danny’s truly insidious nature.
Sam Riley (who was part of the ensemble, alongside Armie Hammer in Wheatley’s Free Fire) makes for a well-cast Jack Favell. He has the right voice and there is a great horse-riding scene that he shares with James. It’s a shame that Frank (one of the best characters in the book) doesn’t get enough screen-time and that brilliant actress Keeley Hawes is underused. Unfortunately, the ball is the point at which the film kind of jumps the shark (with one particularly cringey scene which is sure to be singled out by those who were dead-set against the film from the start) and the second half is definitely not as strong as the first. The ending is sure to prove controversial, if people stick with it until the end. But on balance, there are more positives than negatives to be found here.
One of the best features of the film is the costume design by Julian Day (and yes, I am including Armie Hammer’s mustard-coloured suit in this). A subtle but brilliant detail is that when Mrs de Winter is humiliated at the ball (by dressing in an outfit based on a painting of an ancestor hanging in Manderley), she changes into a truly awful and dowdy dress for the remainder of the ball. The score by the one of the best film composers working today – Clint Mansell – is also a huge plus. Frequent Wheatley collaborator Laurie Rose is the cinematographer, who does a good job of showing the shifting atmospheres from the sun-kissed Monte Carlo romance to the Gothic setting of Manderley (with the dangerous waves crashing just beneath).
I am very much in a minority in thinking that Wheatley is a good adaptor of novels. His adaptation of the challenging High-Rise by JG Ballard (my favourite author) was brilliant and I think he’s done a very good adaptation of one of the most exquisitely-written books of the twentieth century here. It is extremely hard to shake off the shadow of Hitchcock, but he mostly gets the book characters right, with the changes of age and emphasis on class being successful tweaks. Lily James does a good job as Mrs de Winter but while Hammer’s accent is good, it’s hard not to be conscious of him “acting” at many points. Where they both excel is in selling the romance between the two characters and this is the most believable that the love story aspect of Rebecca has been. Surprisingly, Wheatley has certainly emphasised the romance more than the horror, with a final Cairo-set scene that is reminiscent of grand romance The English Patient (perhaps a nod to one of Kristin Scott Thomas’ best roles).
If you take Wheatley’s Rebecca on its own terms and go into it with as open a mind as possible, there is much to be enjoyed here, including the 1930s costumes and production design, the gorgeous score and the central romance. It doesn’t all work, especially in the second half and some of the choices will certainly be unpopular. It’s a shame that it gets progressively worse as it goes along, because the first thirty minutes are very strong. It is definitely worth watching and drawing your own conclusions, just try to leave Hitchcock entirely out of it.