Rebecca

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Lily James in Rebecca.
Lily James in Rebecca.
Photo: Kerry Brown/Netflix

OUR RATING

3/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

A young woman marries a wealthy widower and has to battle the shadow of his dead first wife, Rebecca. 

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

It is always difficult to come second. But it is especially so when the one that came before is seemingly perfect, and you just can't seem to measure up no matter how hard you try. We've seen this with secondborns, with job replacements and, of course, when doing orals in class second.

This is the premise on which Rebecca is based: a second wife who feels as if she cannot live up to the ghost of her husband's seemingly perfect first wife. But in the same vein, this remake has to constantly live in the shadow of the first Rebecca film which was lauded by many and even won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941. It would be unfair to compare this version with the original but, because it tries to walk in its footsteps and pales so much in comparison, it is impossible not to.

Based on the popular gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca has been adapted a few times into film, TV miniseries, radio plays, theatre productions and even an opera. The material itself is so juicy. It is a book that one becomes engrossed in while still being able to pick up on the greater themes at play. And even though it is a modern classic, the characters have become so iconic that they are imprinted into popular culture. The first time I read the book, I was surprised at how erotic it was for the times, and what I enjoyed about the 1940 film version was that it imbued a similar tone while still working within the restrictions of the Hayes Code and the conservativeness of the times.

The story centres around a young woman who is working as a companion to an older wealthy woman in Monaco when she meets a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter. The two have a whirlwind romance before returning to his home, the famous country estate called Manderley. At Manderley, the second Mrs de Winter is constantly plagued by the ghost of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, the mysterious circumstances around her death, and the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who is determined to keep the memory of Rebecca alive.

The original 1940 film was Alfred Hitchcock's first American film that he directed and his only film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. It starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs de Winter, and Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers. It is intimidating for anyone to have to replicate a Hitchcock film, especially one that is as revered as Rebecca. But I think the major problem that befalls this film is that it plays it safe where it could have taken risks and deters from the source material where they should have honoured it.

In the 2020 version, Lily James (Cinderella, Baby Driver) plays the titular role of Mrs de Winter. James has been the darling of period films lately, and she is so dynamic in every role she plays that it is impossible not to like her. However, the role of Mrs De Winter is described as a character that is demure, shy and often overlooked. I find it very difficult that anyone won't notice Lily James in a room. It felt very similar to the role of Lady Rose that she played in Downton Abbey, and the attempts to play the character as more timid and muted did not feel authentic.

Perhaps her casting was more on par with the changes that the filmmakers made to the character. In a 21st century update, they tried to give the character more agency. Especially in the third act, after she finds out the details of Rebecca's death and she tries to prevent Maxim from going to jail. She turns into a detective, looking for clues, being a masterful manipulator and breaking into doctors' surgeries. The change is so drastic that it seems like there are two different characters. I understand that knowing that her husband loves her gives her confidence in herself, but it is wild that it also gives her knowledge that she didn't previously display and new cat burglar skills. The fact that Mrs De Winter is submissive and insecure was a commentary on the times, and society's tendency to belittle women from a lower class and younger women.

Even more miscast was Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter. Maxim's character is generally much older than the protagonist, adding an uneven power balance to their relationship. This version makes them around about the same age and it feels more like a melodramatic romance between a couple than the psychological thriller that the original source material is. Hammer is good looking, but he lacks the ambiguity that Laurence Olivier and the character in the book had. Since Rebecca is from the point of view of Mrs De Winter, we as the viewer should never be too sure of who the villain is. Is it Rebecca or is that what Maxim allows us to believe? This version makes Maxim seem like Noah from The Notebook. I think the tone would have transferred better if they had cast a more distinguished British actor, like Colin Farrell, in the role.

A casting choice I really enjoyed was Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers. Thomas is such an amazing actor who does not always get the accolades she deserves. In this role, she got to relish in the villainous nature of Mrs Danvers. The original film adapted the relationship between Danvers and Rebecca to make them more the same age, and it had lesbian undertones. This version, like the book, tells Danvers' backstory as Rebecca's former nanny, who came with her to Manderley as her housekeeper, and their relationship (although toxic) was more like a mother-daughter one. She could have leaned into the campness of the character more, but her steely-eyed, cold approach to the character helped to bring in the chilling aspect that the film lacked.

In contrast to the original film, the remake was a colourful feast. The original was in black and white (it also won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in Black and White), and this one was extremely bright – from the costumes, to the setting to the lighting. It felt out of sorts in a way and kind of gaudy. Rebecca is a gothic thriller. It is essentially a ghost story where the ghost is never seen. Rebecca is a character whose presence hangs throughout the film, but she is never shown, and without the dark and mysteriousness of Manderley, Rebecca just seems out of place.

The ending is another point of contention, where the novel and the Hitchcock film ended with Manderley burning down, and it was up to the reader or viewer to assume what happened to Mr and Mrs De Winter, whether they stayed together and if they ever found happiness. The new version gives the characters a happy ending, and continues on the romantic melodrama, allowing us to think that it was just a hurdle they had to overcome to reach true happiness. This falls flat and does, even more, take away from the interesting themes of the novel and from the tone that it was attempting to give off.

The big question that everyone is asking is whether we needed another Rebecca remake? Well, we didn't need another A Star Is Born remake either, but Bradley Cooper still managed to create a refreshing take on a story that we all know.

The filmmakers could have done more to alleviate the main themes of the novel and the fact that it was an erotic thriller, while still making it their own. Rebecca de Winter was the original Amy Dunne, and this film could have been an excellent Gone Girl-type thriller if the filmmakers leaned into what made the book and the original so amazing – the eerie gothicness of the tale.

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