by David Katz
- British genre great Ben Wheatley’s first big-budget feature is a disappointingly conservative adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic classic
If this were the early 2010s, the idea of a Ben Wheatley Rebecca would conjure expectations of grisly ultraviolence and black comedy, in addition to sheer disbelief; you could surely hope for a punk demolition of a canonical great. Instead, we have this decorous Netflix production, released worldwide this week, too timid to reinvent the source material, and consigned to colouring well inside the lines.
Alfred Hitchcock’s initial 1940 adaptation of the novel is one of those films that embodies a genre, the classic gothic romance. Like much of his best work, its present-day resonance is unmistakable; for example, due to the popularity of the film in Spain, it introduced the word rebeca to the lexicon, denoting the kind of plush jacket that Joan Fontaine wears in the film. Paul Thomas Anderson’s great Phantom Thread was an imaginative refashioning of Rebecca, and makes the concept of a more conventional remake strain to justify itself. Still, Wheatley’s prior excellence, and the sense that he could personalise anything with his gallows-humour British wit, made him an intuitive option.
The resulting film, however, hews so close to past memories of Daphne du Maurier’s source that we can make another unforgiving link – to Gus van Sant’s failed shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Lily James and Armie Hammer sub in, respectively, for Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in the roles of the unnamed protagonist and her new husband, the tortured aristocrat Maxim de Winter. Many will know the story, and for the younger newcomers whom this streaming release is aiming to court, the narrative is laid out in an abruptly efficient manner. James’s character, assisting a wealthy American dowager in Monte Carlo, is swept off her feet by the brooding Max, and they quickly elope as newly-weds back to his sprawling estate, Manderley, of course presided over by his fearsome housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, dripping with snobbery in a role she was born to play).
Yet there is another threat undermining this unhappy coupling, if one can be adulterous with the deceased. Rebecca, unseen but utterly present, looms, and Wheatley, to his credit, maintains the ambiguous shapes she takes in the story. She is an albatross for Maxim, a spurned lesbian lover for Danvers, and a romantic rival-in-death for Mrs de Winter, played here with a bit more worldliness by James than her predecessor. Beyond the original novel and film, this notion of the repressed figure, and the baggage of past romantic trauma that we bring to every new relationship, is ever-relevant in modern society and its courtship rituals. If anything, Wheatley and screenwriters Jane Goldman, Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel over-emphasise this, bringing sub-text into the open; they want to show they’re cognisant of all the previous critical readings of the text, making this Rebecca like an essay assignment on the theme of “Rebecca”.
Still, Wheatley’s skill and talent shine through in some elements, yet his stylistic flourishes and Roeg-like, non-linear editing never amount to more than scenic diversions from the main narrative flow. Special credit should go to the film’s production design, expressionistic (that hall of mirrors!) and realistic in shrewd measure. But it’s a shame that for viewers selecting this film to watch, Netflix can’t instead play the role of critic, and start playback of the 1940 version. That would be a bit of Hitchcockian misdirection.
Rebecca is a production of the UK, staged by Netflix and Working Title. It was produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park.
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