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Like a weird episode of Downton — with less sexual chemistry

Rebecca reviewed

October 15, 2020

12:39 PM

15 October 2020

12:39 PM

Rebecca

dir: Ben Wheatley, 2020, PG-13

Rebecca is a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic, twisted, never-out-of-print tale of sexual jealousy. It’s directed by Ben Wheatley, with a script by Jane Goldman, and stars Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas. High hopes? Me too. But though it’s perfectly watchable, it’s not at all daring.

Would the second Mrs de Winter be more fully formed and less of a pallid, round-shouldered meek little thing? Would sinister Mrs Danvers have more substance? Would it be a modern interpretation for modern times? No, is the short answer. And also it just isn’t sexy enough. Meanwhile, I forgot to start this with: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’ as it’s how every other review will begin, I’m sure. But at least I got it into the second paragraph, so don’t be too aggrieved.

This is not, Wheatley has insisted, a remake of Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning version starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, as Goldman has looked afresh at the source material and would you call every production of King Lear, say, a remake of one that’s gone before? Fair point, so I’ll try and not let Hitchcock’s version haunt me, as if it were the first Mrs de Winter, and this the second, but it may prove hard. Especially as you keep having to revert to that adaptation to ask: but what does this add?


The film opens in the golden glow of Monte Carlo where the young woman (James), who is unnamed but will become the second Mrs de Winter, is the paid companion of the rich vulgarian Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd; great fun). Also staying at their hotel is Maxim de Winter (Hammer), the grief-stricken widower whose Cornish estate, Manderley, is said to be stunningly beautiful. They fall in love — montage time: dips in the azure sea; drives in his motorcar; oysters for breakfast — and then marry. (‘I am asking you to marry me, you little fool,’ is his manly declaration.)

***
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***

They return to Manderley where the second Mrs de Winter attempts to become the perfect wife, but she is, of course, thwarted. Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca, who drowned at sea, is everywhere, as everyone adored her, seemingly. And Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, is not about to see her replaced. Scott Thomas is suitably creepy with a crimson mouth always drawn cruelly, but the manner in which she kept popping up everywhere did make me snigger. There has always been an air of lesbianism about Mrs Danvers, particularly in the way she still sets out Rebecca’s negligée at night, and I thought this might be explored here, but that route is never taken. Similarly, there’s no riff on the perfect wife vs transgressive wife, or male entitlement, as I had hoped there would be. As for the mood, it is sometimes menacing but, unlike the Hitchcock (sorry), it doesn’t hold up. The third act is especially turgid and, on occasion, it did feel like watching an episode of Downton, albeit a weird one.

The second Mrs de Winter is, thankfully, more fully formed — she wears trousers! She drives! — but James doesn’t indicate whether she has much of an inner life. Hammer, on the other hand, looks good and sounds right, which is all that’s necessary as Maxim isn’t that interesting. But there should be fabulous sexual chemistry between the two and there isn’t, which is a blow, as without it you start to wonder: what does this mopey woman see in this abrupt, aloof man who does nothing to relieve her misery? Even so, it is perfectly watchable plus, I should add, there’s an excellent supporting cast (Keeley Hawes, Jane Lapotaire), it always looks gorgeous and the ending is more true to the book.

Perhaps the failure is mine in wanting something utterly fresh and different from the film that was made 80 years ago by that fella. You know the one.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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