It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie and won the Best Picture Oscar, the only film from his considerable output to receive the accolade. Made in 1940, his adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s bestselling Rebecca has since become something of a classic. The romantic combination of the young Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, the dramatic Cornish landscape, that heady mix of mystery and murder …. It had the lot. So why re-make it? Why indeed …..
It certainly wouldn’t seem like natural territory for director Ben Wheatley, but he’s been emphatic that this is not a re-make, rather a modern version of the story with a different focus. The essential story, however, remains the same with a young, naïve woman (Lily James) meeting wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) on the French Riviera and, after a whirlwind romance, the newly married couple return to his country estate, Manderley. But the shadow of his first wife, the titular Rebecca, hangs over the entire house, kept alive by the disapproving housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), who does everything she can to undermine the new Mrs de Winter. As she starts to believe the marriage has been a terrible mistake, huge questions are raised about Rebecca’s demise and Maxim stands accused of murder ….
All very familiar and all very mysterious. Although Wheatley is adamant this isn’t a re-make, he’s kept all the most memorable elements of the original that you’d expect – that famous opening line, the disastrous fancy dress ball, that scene at the window with Mrs Danvers, they’re all there. And, while some feel close to the Hitchcock version, others definitely don’t: the incident at the ball is played in a lower key, but still has a devastating effect on the young Mrs de Winter (yes, just like in the book, we never learn her name). But the emphasis has moved, with the more gothic element of the story reinforced by a stronger emphasis on the ghostly. Rebecca is no longer just a presence, represented by all her possessions and Mrs Danvers’ memories: now she appears in dreams, dreams that recur as regularly as that one about going back to Manderley.
Wheatley also lingers over the Manderley section of the story, so that the final segment feels rushed, with the mystery side of proceedings tied up in what seems like just a few minutes. Attractive to look at, nicely acted with Scott Thomas giving Mrs Danvers a hitherto unseen note of tragedy, and with just the right amount of gloom it may have been, but this writer still couldn’t see a reason for Wheatley making the film. The answer comes right at the end, one that makes you sit bolt upright in your seat, questioning everything that’s gone before. But is it enough?
Not really. There’s little to hint at the surprise to come and its effect is based on the audience being captivated by the rest of the film. It manages to keep your attention, but there’s always that niggling, lingering question about why the film was made in the first place. It takes a brave director to take on a beloved classic, one that everybody thinks they know and give it a new angle. Wheatley’s simply given it a new ending, one that’s admittedly thought provoking, but a one shot surprise isn’t the same as a new vision.
Drama, Romance, Thriller | Cert: 12A | Netflix | In cinemas, 16 October 2020. Netflix, 21 October 2020. | Dir. Ben Wheatley | Armie Hammer, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Sam Riley.