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It was eighty years ago that Alfred Hitchcock came to Hollywood, at the behest of industry titan David O. Selznick, to make a new motion picture. Selznick, the toast of the town after his big win with ‘Gone With the Wind’, was on the hunt for another hit. With ‘Rebecca’, an adaptation of a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, he got it. Audiences and critics were captivated by the story of a nameless lady’s maid who is romantically whisked away by the mysterious widower Maxim de Winter, to an immense estate haunted by the spirit of his supposedly immaculate first wife. Rebecca, like Gone With the Wind, won Best Picture, giving Selznick a two-year streak. It would be the only Hitchcock film to win the award.
Fast forward eighty years and another English director has decided to try his hand at lensing the du Maurier novel. The titan of industry is not Selznick, but Netflix (to be fair, Netflix is only responsible for the distribution of the 2020 Rebecca, which was produced by Working Title Films). In his attempt to adapt Rebecca for the 21st century, Ben Wheatley is a bit like the hapless heroine of du Maurier’s novel. Despite his best intentions, many who were smitten by the previous Rebecca are likely to remain loyal. His film, like the overwhelmingly vast halls of the Manderley estate, is haunted–by the ghosts of Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Fontaine.
While some may view Wheatley’s film as being overshadowed by its predecessor, it’s actually quite charming how committed it is to its own outsized ambition. It’s another quality the film shares with its plucky protagonist. Quite literally plucked from her lowly role as a lady’s maid in Monte Carlo, Lily James’ character is forced to make the most of a dream that quickly becomes a nightmare. It’s a fairytale fantasy that continues beyond the wedding where most fairy tales end, and it takes its tale far beyond the point of idealistic comfort. The former servant finds herself untrained in the secret language of the aristocracy, judged for every misspoken syllable, often without the words even to ask for help.
The story’s concern with classism becomes quite apparent during its gorgeously shot opening chapters in Monte Carlo. An ingénue decked in clunky clogs and flop sweat, our heroine is relentlessly mocked in the employ of the wealthy Mrs. Van Hopper, played by an imperious Ann Dowd. It’s instantly apparent what Wheatley brings to this Hitchcock update. While reined in, Wheatley’s trademark grotesquery is on display in Lily James’ dramatic perspiration, as well as in the appearance of Mrs. Van Hopper who, when suddenly taken ill, adopts a gruesome outward visage that reflects her vile personality. Even our ostensible hero Maxim de Winter (A dashing Armie Hammer) has a disturbing edge, an air of privileged untouchability that allows him to pick up a lover like a plaything and cast her aside as easily, should the impulse arise. One is reminded of ‘Call Me By Your Name‘, but in that film, the disparity between Hammer and Timothée Chalamet was one of experience–here it is the even vaster gulf of tremendous class difference and societal advantage.
Fans of Downton Abbey will likely feel a twinge of nostalgia upon the sight of Manderley, an estate opulent enough to put the Crawley residence to shame. As the new Mrs. de Winter is gallantly carried across the threshold by her new husband, she cranes her head back and we are given a glimpse of her flipped point of view–her world is being turned upside down. Wheatley’s go-to cinematographer Laurie Rose takes expert advantage of Manderley’s massiveness to dwarf Lily James at every opportunity. James’ Downton Abbey character Cousin Rose had the charming ability to cross between the worlds of the affluent and the hoi polloi, but here the actress is more akin to a newly-enrolled-at-Hogwarts Hermione Granger. She’s a muggle out of her depths in a mystical new world, attempting to solve a mystery while dogged by intolerance and the shadows of evil. She even wears sweaters like Hermione, a wardrobe choice that not only grounds her but seems like a silent protest given the extraordinary expectations she is held to by her new peers and members of her staff.
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No one has higher expectations than Mrs. Danvers, the lady’s maid of the former Mrs. de Winter. Portrayed with an icy intensity by Kristin Scott Thomas, Danvers quietly maneuvers herself to become the architect of the new Mrs. de Winter’s misfortune. In the years since Hitchcock’s original, much has been made of Danvers’ devotion to the deceased Rebecca, with many heralding Danvers as an early LGBTQ icon. The 1940 picture was prevented by censors from overtly hinting at any romantic connection between Rebecca and Danvers, and one might expect a 2020 re-envisioning to be a bit more explicit. Surprisingly, Wheatley retains much of the original’s subtlety, only slightly intensifying Danvers’ innuendoes. The idea that Rebecca herself was a polyamorous or non-heterosexual woman trapped in a regimented society is not something the film considers too deeply–Wheatley’s focus is on the fallout.
Mr. and Mrs. de Winter
Perhaps the most abruptly old-fashioned aspect of the film is the treatment of the new Mrs. de Winter by Mr. de Winter. Seeing Laurence Olivier brusquely condescend to Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film comes off as an artifact of a bygone era, but seeing this same behavior administered by Armie Hammer to Lily James is somehow far more upsetting. De Winter’s casual refusal to communicate his turmoil with his wife can be interpreted generously as untreated PTSD, but a less sympathetic reading is that it’s a form of gaslighting enabled by an entrenched belief in the superiority of wealth and breeding. Here we see a weaponization of Hammer’s natural allure; having been exposed to the abundance of his charms, it’s all the more distressing when he deprives us of them.
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As we are pulled into Rebecca’s mystery along with our protagonist, the film develops into an increasingly dark phantasmagoria. A dirge-like Clint Mansell soundtrack scores a bewildering ball that ends with a scream intercut with a fireworks display–it creates the visual impression that the explosion is coming from darkness created within our heroine. Character actors such as Sam Riley, Ben Crompton, and Bill Paterson appear as the sunken countenances of those who encountered Rebecca in life and still seem pulled down by her gravity. As Danvers’ machinations become more insidious, a ghostly fog is introduced, and Rebecca’s beyond-the-grave victory seems all but inevitable. As the new Mrs. de Winter’s eyelids flutter in the depths of a Manderley nightmare, Wheatley implies the possibility of an even more unfortunate fate–one of accepting one’s own emotional objectification.
Rebecca is showing in select theaters and available to stream on Netflix October 21.
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