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It’s not easy making movies so therefore it must be twice as hard remaking them. Especially when a movie is an 80 year old certified classic and the 1941 Best Picture winner to boot. Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 class focused thriller Rebecca would be a tough act to follow regardless of what year it was remade in and by whom. When so many other remakes like Ben Hur, The Lion King and The Magnificent Seven have failed to land on arrival or retain any cultural value afterwards it’s hard to see the point in having Ben Wheatley – known envelope pusher – direct a new adaptation of Rebecca for Netflix. Beyond the monetary reasons, of course.
A young woman – the closest she gets to a name is Mrs de Winter (Lily James) – is hired as a companion to the irritable Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in Monte Carlo. She soon catches the eye of the sophisticated and widowed aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and they embark on a whirlwind romance. After a honeymoon on the continent the second Mrs de Winter is brought to her husband’s ancient, foreboding estate of Manderley where the staff, especially housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), react frostily to her presence as they compare her to Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, who may not have been all she seemed.
Wheatley’s Rebecca may not be a remake of Hitchcock’s film but there is functionally no difference beyond a plot point that was only changed in the first place due to Hollywood’s restrictive Hays Code. Well, there is the colour but the rendering of Rebecca in colour makes it seem like its textures have been flattened. Although, in fairness, the lighting does occasionally pop when it drifts into moody, dreamy blues and flaring reds. You can feel that Wheatley just wants to rip away the gilded wallpaper to show the rot beneath but when he tries there’s very little meat, rotten or not, on Rebecca’s bones.
There’s plenty to dig into in du Maurier’s original novel. The muddled upstairs-downstairs relationship between Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers, the queer infatuation Danvers had for Rebecca, and Maxim de Winter’s deep seated self-loathing all make for incredibly compelling themes. Yet, Jane Goldman’s script and, by-proxy, the performances barely touch on any of these things.
The chemistry between James and Hammer often feels like you’re sitting in front of an open fire. As the film goes on the two settle into performances that feel distinct from Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the original film. Hammer might lack Olivier’s quiet grace but his imposing physique and that voice that sounds like distant thunder make him more convincing as the hidden brute other characters describe Maxim as. Still, for all of James’ class identity struggles and Hammer’s repressed and boiling emotions, none of it comes close to what it could be. The same goes for the supporting performances with talents like Ann Dowd and Sam Riley as the roguish Jack Favell wasted in one-note roles. Even Scott Thomas can’t bring the grief-stricken bird-of-prey energy that the character of Danvers needs thanks to a script that lacks the required detail.
Ben Wheatley’s best work has often come in the grotesque mode. It’s rare you’ll find horror done as well as Kill List, comedy as pitch black as Sightseers or action as well thought-out as Free Fire. So, trusting Wheatley with adapting Rebecca seems like a wise choice. So why does it have the by now notorious made-by-committee feel so many Netflix films have? It’s hard to shake the feeling that adapting Rebecca again is unnecessary. Despite all the pretty colours and occasional flash of Wheatley’s distinct brand of filmmaking Rebecca ultimately feels like a waste of time.