A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2020


2020, PG-13, 121 mins.

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter  /  Ann Dowd as Mrs. Van Hopper  /  Armie Hammer as George Fortescue Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter  /  Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers  /  Keeley Hawes as Beatrice Lacy  /  Jane Lapotaire as Granny  /  Lucy Russell as Clementine Whitney  /  Bryony Miller as Clarice

Directed by Ben Wheatley  /  Written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier and the 1940 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock


Netflix's REBECCA remake is sumptuously shot, handsomely produced, and simply looks sensational. Regrettably, though, it never elevates itself beyond being a dramatically serviceable and visually appealing bore that struggles to leave a lasting impression.  

Of course, this is a redo of Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 effort (his only film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar), which in turn was based on the 1938 Daphne du Maurier romantic thriller novel of the same name, not to mention that various other adaptations (in various forms or another) have seen the light of day over the course of the last 80-plus years.  There's commendable levels of pure movie craftsmanship on display in this latest iteration and on a visual level this is an unqualified knockout.  But considering the absolutely overcrowded retread antecedents that pre-date it, this REBECCA is kind of all looks and no brain, leaving the whole production feeling rather empty minded. 

The period film opens in lush and beautiful Monte Carlo and introduces us to an unnamed woman...known as Woman here (Lily James), who has been working under the disagreeably cranky and domineering Van Hooper (the terribly underrated Ann Dowd, always classing up any production that she's in).  It's here where Woman has a fateful meet-cute with Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a handsome and filthy rich widower that's looking for some newfound connection.  Woman becomes instantly infatuated with Maxim, and he certainly reciprocates affection back, and within no time into their whirlwind romance he decides to propose, which she instantly and graciously accepts.  Soon after becoming Maxim's second wife, Woman joins him on a return trip back home to his lavish and sprawling estate of Manderley.  Everything seems endlessly bright and rosy for the newlywed pair, with Woman in particular enamored with her new surroundings and not worrying in the slightest about filling the shoes and following in the footsteps of the first Mrs. de Winter. 

Things, unfortunately, start to snowball really quickly for the young protagonist.  She meets all of Maxim's help, including Mrs. Danvers (a well cast Kristin Scott Thomas), who takes an immediate dislike of Woman and instantly feels that she's a poor substitute for Maxim's last wife in...yes...Rebecca.  In actuality, Danvers remains obsessively loyal to the deceased Rebecca, which Woman can clearly feel and this prompts her on a journey of discovery into who this woman was and what made her so incomparable.  As the new Mrs. de Winter starts to dig deep into the mysteries of Manderley and what actually happened to Rebecca (did she merely die in a freak boating accident?) she starts to notice Maxim's fondness of her waning, leading to some palpable tension, even in social circles or parties.  While this is happening, that dastardly Mrs. Danvers plots multiple schemes to discredit Woman and sabotage any future happiness she hopes to secure with Maxim, leaving Woman feeling increasingly fearful that she's fighting for her new hubbie's affections versus...a dead woman.  Then, weird things start to occur at Manderley...and so on and so on. 



REBECCA, as mentioned, was directed with great stylistic flair by Ben Wheatley (HIGH RISE and FREE FIRE), and he seems to use every penny in Netflix's coffers to produce a remake that's beyond easy on the eyes.  Even though this film takes place during a decidedly dark period of the past (1930's Depression era), REBECCA is anything but nihilistic and bleak in its imagery.  The Oscar caliber production values here paint the early scenes set in Monte Carlo with bright and vibrant hues of a storybook, which serves as a nice counterpoint to the latter half of the film taking place in Manderley, which sports gothic shadows and an atmosphere of unease and dread.  I also admired some of the initial intrigue of the early courtship sequences between Woman and Maxim, which highlights the almost unhealthily meteoric rise of their relationship and quick nuptials.  Maxim is the kind of inordinately affluent and attractive man that could have any woman he wants, but he seems to have his tractor beam honed in on Woman, even with the large shadow of his ex looming ominously over his shoulder.   

REBECCA does a relatively faithful job of capturing the essence of the literary source material and Hitchcock's more well know earlier film: A woman growing to learn that she's having to wage a cerebral battle of will against a another woman no longer with us, but whose influence can be overwhelmingly felt from day to day.  Herein lies one of the biggest problems with this new REBECCA: The basic chemistry between James and Hammer (both routinely solid actors) is seriously lacking.  This might have something to do with how the underlining eroticism and sexual tension of the film is so achingly soft-pedaled when it could have been explored more satisfyingly (especially considering that this is a Netflix production and the makers shouldn't have to check their inhibitions with a weak willed PG-13ifying of the material).  Obviously, this could not have been milked during Hitchcock's time, which leaves it all the more disappointing that Wheatley and company here are all rather reticent minded with going in a more explicit direction.  This REBECCA simply lacks passion and heat and, as a result, James and Hammer are basically left appearing like limitlessly attractive props at service of the story conventions and machinations. 

Hammer in particular seems very strangely miscast here.  He absolutely pulls off the physicality of his role with a pitch perfect precision, but he never feels emotionally invested in the rich complexities of this troubled and haunted man.  I just didn't find him convincing in the part, which is something I can't quite say about James, who does capture her part's initial wide eyed innocence and zeal that later gives way to disturbed insecurity and doubt.  She's not especially flashy in the role, which has left some labeling her work as bland, but I think it finds the right note.  Speaking of flashy, Thomas greatly succeeds where Dame Judith Anderson did playing the same role before for Hitchcock.  As Mrs. Danvers, Thomas maintains such a venomous aura of spite in the story, taking great power playing relish in her mind games with Woman.  If anything, Thomas' mere presence and authoritative turn gives REBECCA a much needed hypodermic needle jolt to the heart that it desperately needs. 

Still, though, everything else surrounding this remake just, well, falls so resoundingly flat.  Even when Wheatley attempts to tap into the more Gothic horror trappings of the narrative - showcasing Woman facing a menagerie of nightmarish and hallucinatory visions and witnessing several shocking reveals while investigating the beguiling enigma that was Rebecca -  it barely registers, let alone brings any tangible level of nail biting tension and suspense to the piece (as far as romance thrillers go, this one just lacks any lingering scares).  Then there's the nagging elephant in the room question as to whether we really needed a remake of REBECCA in the first place.  I generally loathe the idea of remakes in general, but will concede to like some that manage to find that difficult to attain middle ground area of paying faithful homage to the source material while finding its own uniquely compelling footing and creative voice.  This REBECCA looks as beautiful as an oil painting, but all of the eye popping scenery, costumes, period details and so forth are all for naught if everything else beneath those surface pleasures barely resisters with interest.  The core ideas and themes of the spirit of dead woman creating terrible unrest for another living one has so much fertile potential, but REBECCA fails to capitalize on this, and it's a remake best left forgotten. 

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