Rebecca (2020)

Recently released to Netflix, this adaptation of Rebecca looks fantastic and contains wonderful actors doing their best, but it leaves out the heart, soul, romance, and mystery of the story.

Rebecca is based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. It follows an unnamed protagonist who meets and falls in love with a wealthy widower. They get married and she returns with him to his family estate called Manderley. Once there she is haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca, who was by all accounts the perfect woman.

This story was most famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. That movie was a brilliant adaptation that people should seek out. This will not be a comparison of the two films. Nor will this be a critique of the faithfulness of the adaptation from the novel. I will endeavor to take the film on its own terms and judge the film accordingly. Too many people have disregarded the movie because it isn’t the book or the earlier film.

The movie stars Lily James as the protagonist. She does a lovely job with the part. She is a convincingly naive young woman at the start. We meet her working as a companion to a loathsome woman who takes her on holiday to Monte Carlo in the 1920’s. At their hotel, they meet the wealthy and famous Maxim De Winter played by Armie Hammer. He is handsome and charming and easy company, but Hammer never quite gets any deeper than that. He feels very surface in this movie. He is a good actor, but he totally misses the mark here. He seems to be playing an affable fellow who sometimes frowns and walks out. He does that a lot here. He looks grumpy and walks out of scenes quite often. He just doesn’t have the internal anguish for the role. He feels very surface level and lacking a real inner life.

Anyway, they have a sun drenched romance as James and Hammer frolic in period swimwear and drive around in classic cars. They rush into a marriage proposal and then rush to Manderley. The book opens with the famous line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The director Ben Wheatley seemed to take that line to heart and treats the film as a sort of feverish dream. Nothing quite feels real here. He excises connective shots in order to create a disorienting feeling. James walks to a door, hard cut to her standing at a window down the hall. It feels jarring because we don’t see the shot of her going down the hall. Sometimes this creates a dreamy effect. Sometimes it just pulls us out of the movie. In addition, there are multiple dream sequences aided by excessive cgi. These feel unimportant to the story and more an excuse to show off some wild imagery.

There are whole sequences in the movie that don’t feel like they really happened, but seem to have actually happened in the narrative. There is a segment in which the James character meets Jack Favell played by Sam Riley. Because we don’t see how James gets from the house to the meeting with Favell, and we don’t see how she gets back and no one else sees Favell it feels like it might be a dream. Or maybe Favell isn’t real at all? But then he is real because he comes back later. There’s also a heart of darkness style sequence where James chases after Rebecca’s ghost through the bowels of Manderley and then is surrounded by dancing people in masks that must be a nightmare, but it doesn’t feel like a dream sequence. It’s shot like a chase scene and doesn’t feel like its a depiction of her internal struggle. This dissonance of framing and story is just confusing rather than deep. It pulled me out constantly.

The big part in any version of Rebecca is the character of Mrs. Danvers. Here she is played by Kristin Scott Thomas. She is perfect casting. She has an imperious withering glare that could not be more suited to a character. Unfortunately, in this film, she’s more of a mean minor character rather than a true antagonist. She undermines her and sets her up for failure a few times, but she’s never truly horrible to our protagonist. She talks fondly of Rebecca, and glowers from balconies and staircases, but she never becomes a full blooded villain in the film. Danvers suggests she kill herself, but that might be a dream. She sets her up to make a fool of herself at a party, but it doesn’t feel like a major act of marriage ending sabotage.

There’s a lot more style here than substance. It tries so hard to create a dreamlike tone, that it fails to engage dramatically. It also eschews all characters for the sake of our protagonist. No one else is given much time or attention compared to her. It’s a wonderful looking movie, but it just doesn’t come together.

Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas are wonderful actresses doing good work with what they have. Sam Riley is also fantastic as Favell. He manages to shine through. Hammer is a beautiful disappointment. He looks great, but he’s missing the mark. He’s just miscast here. The film is beautifully shot. The production design is great. The movie just doesn’t click as a story. It’s misdirected. Sam Wheatley has made some good films before, but this one doesn’t come together.

I you’re looking for a nice looking movie to spend a few hours on this is the movie for you. If you want to really experience the story, check out one of the other adaptations or read the book. It’s not really my cup of tea. B

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