For those who know and revere the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, which is one of the great classics of gothic romance, this new incarnation of Rebecca, from director Ben Wheatley, is a valiant reinterpretation that is truer to the book than it is to the Hitchcock film, which is as is should be. While some might argue that a new version of the story is unnecessary, it fills the holes in our imagination as to how the story plays out. For example, the early romance portrayed between our ever-unnamed heroine (Lilly James) and Max de Winter (Armie Hammer) offers a sensuality and easy rapport that better explains his quick proposal.
If we need any more rationale as to why someone would jump at marrying Armie Hammer (errrr, Max de Winter) Ann Down as Mrs. Van Hopper gives a multitude of reasons as to why our heroine would run into the arms of the man rescuing her from this strident, condescending, and very pretentious employer.
Much of the more traumatic action is suggested as nightmares through which our heroine is wading, and appropriately so. From the beginning, her experiences seem like a dream. Manderley is expressed as a sort of dream location, from her memory. We never really know if her reality is real life. The writer, director, and actor James, conspiring to make our heroine an everywoman we can relate to is a great move. When we reach the moment Mrs. Danvers tries to talk her out of the window, we really understand why she considers it. She might have a fatal case of imposter syndrome. We are also lulled into rationalizing all is acceptable when our heroine decides to cover the tracks of dishonorable doings by those she cares about.
Watching Mrs. Danvers is like witnessing a gaslighting mastermind. In this version, I find myself screaming at the screen, ‘EFF you Mrs. Danvers”, repeatedly. Taking on the role made famous by Dame Judith Anderson, Kristin Scott Thomas rises to the evil occasion. Fans of Rebecca know her gaslighting is destined to get worse and worse, especially when she tries to ‘befriend’ the second Mrs. de Winter. She uses the other members of the staff to do her nefarious bidding, even as the second Mrs. de Winter is trying mightily to be the mistress of the house. She speaks of Rebecca glowingly, even though she sounds a horror to the rest of us. The beauty of this version of the film is how Mrs. Danvers becomes something of the moral center of the film in the last act. Wheatley makes us notice just how off the beam Max and his new wife are, in terms of what is objectively seen as right and wrong. As the audience, we are either so invested in their relationship that we don’t care, so aligned with the heroine that we want to see her rise as the victor, or hopefully we halt in the midst of all that, and realize Rebecca deserved a better end, even if she was intentionally courting disaster.
For fans of the original book and the 1940 Hitchcock classic, this new film is a delightful addition to the canon. Honestly, Laurence Olivier was never a good choice as Max de Winter. He played the character as always one step away from falling apart, and read as a potential abuser. It was difficult to understand why our heroine stuck by him. Hammer, on the other hand, seems calmed whenever he is in the heroine’s presence. His expression shows the comfort she brings to him.
This 2020 version of Rebecca might have taken what Hitchcock rose to a dark classic and recreated it as a romantic melodrama, but I would argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Isn’t that what Du Maurier was after in the first place?
The characters, costumes, set, and story take us away from ourselves, etching flawed romantic characters getting out of a jam into our minds in a new way. It also reminds us that, as bad as all our 2020 has gotten, at least we aren’t fighting some dead, amorphous, evil former wife. As we fight a real monster in The White House, seeing an everywoman rescuing a dashing yet flawed Armie Hammer from himself is a Halloween fantasy worth having. Am I right?
3 out of 5 stars.