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Remakes have a terrible reputation, and the reason for that is simple and has nothing to do with the ratio of good versus bad ones that have been made over the years. Rather, it’s because each one suffers from the same inescapable issues, which are pre-established expectations based on the quality of the predecessor, and a necessity to establish a kind of raison d’etre. They are judged on different terms than original stories, and it’s often that the bar is set too high to ever reach.
Keeping this in mind, one recognizes that there is crazy pressure on director Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca – a film that is not just a remake, but a remake of a thriller from the filmmaker that cinema history recognizes as the Master of Suspense. Released in 1940, the Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine stands the test of time, and is still fondly remembered as one of the filmmaker’s best. Wheatley, however, had his own vision for what the story could be made with modern techniques, and the finished product proves him right for making the leap. The Netflix release is an atmospheric and well-constructed adaptation of the original Daphne Du Maurier novel, and particularly pops thanks to its stylistic flair and excellent performances from leads Lily James and Armie Hammer.
Set in the 1930s, the story introduces its unnamed protagonist (James) working as a traveling companion for the wealthy Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) while she staying for a spell on the French Riviera. She is regularly belittled and abused for her lower class standing, though it winds up being through her employer that she is introduced to wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Hammer). Their courtship is kept hush-hush, as Maxim quietly gets messages to her so that they can meet up without Van Hopper being aware, but everything is nearly destroyed when the relationship is exposed and Van Hopper attempts to sabotage it by planning to leave for New York.
Rather than lose the woman he’s quickly falling in love with, Maxim makes the rash decision to propose and make his lover the new Mrs. de Winter, and together they travel back to England to live at the palatial de Winter estate known as Manderley.
The newly married Mrs. de Winter is completely overwhelmed by the life of extreme wealth and luxury, receiving regular dagger glances from the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), but that’s nothing compared to the “ghost” of Rebecca, Maxim’s departed ex-wife. Everybody in her husband’s circle remembers the woman as a perfect saint, and all her belongings remain throughout the mansion – each marked with a scripted “R.”
Not only must Mrs. de Winter try to survive the pressure put upon her by the former Mrs. de Winter, but simultaneously she finds herself unraveling the mysterious circumstances surrounding Rebecca’s death, with shocking results.
It’s not a reinvention of Rebecca, but it certainly is well told.
Based on this plot description, those familiar with either Daphne Du Maurier’s book or Alfred Hitchcock’s original film will recognize that Ben Wheatley’s adaptation doesn’t totally reinvent the narrative, but it’s a case where it doesn’t need to be altered because the material itself is superb. The script by Jane Goldman and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse is taut and well-paced, and does a particularly exceptional job transitioning through the different segments of the shifting story.
Rebecca is structured with three different genres in its three acts – it’s a romance, then a gothic mystery, and then a courtroom drama – and each is as compelling as the last. With this kind of story it would be easy for things to get scattered and for the focus to be lost, but what anchors it is the strong script that keeps the relationship at the core of everything.
Lily James and Armie Hammer are captivating, and have wonderful paired charisma.
Obviously only helping in this circumstance is that Rebecca employs two of the best young actors working today, and they are both at the top of their charisma game in this one. You fall in love with them as they are falling in love with each other in the first act, particularly drawn to their individual spirits: Lily James has a particularly striking and wonderful innocence, while Armie Hammer evokes a warmth that hides a haunting pain. They are amazing individually, and even better together.
Rebecca’s plot tests the strength of their relationship, as Mrs. de Winter’s discoveries about the titular ex-wife lead her to question what she doesn’t know about Maxim, and James and Hammers’ performances both do a fantastic job evolving with the material and evoking different emotional responses from the audience.
Ben Wheatley adds wonderful stylistic flourishes that beautifully enhance the story.
Completing the hit trifecta is the director’s aesthetic vision for Rebecca, accented not just with eye-opening cinematography, but also clever and well-executed flair in the editing that digs into films themes. In the case of the former, Ben Wheatley makes marvelous use of contrasting photography as the story changes. The first act is so sumptuous, lush and gorgeous that you would trade your right arm for the chance to be sucked into your screen – and it’s impressive to watch how all of the color and vibrancy starts to get sucked away as Mrs. de Winter lives at Manderley beneath a shadow.
Accentuating the influence of memory and the past’s impact on the present, Rebecca is also brilliantly constructed with slick style by Wheatley and editor Jonathan Amos. While the plot plays out sequentially, there is a kind of non-linear methodology in the edit that sees the movie jump forward before the end of a scene so that a character’s reaction can be intercut with the conclusion. It’s fresh and makes an impact.
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca won’t be able to escape comparisons between it and the version made by Alfred Hitchcock, but it should be recognized that the new film stands on its own merits. There is a specific vision at play that enhances the story being told, and there are excellent and memorable performances that further prove the immense talent of the stars. It doesn’t have the hallmark of being entirely fresh, but it’s an impressive presentation of the familiar story.