Rebecca

Old fashioned glamour, ritzy locations and handsome leads, but the latest Rebecca is a tame adaptation of a gaslight classic

M, 121 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For anyone longing for a dash of old-fashioned movie glamour, the courtship in Monte Carlo that kicks off Rebecca is just the place to start. There are racy drives along the Corniche, risqué picnics in secluded coves, and meandering walks through lush gardens that cling to the cliffs.

There are also elegant 1930s fashions and cars, and lots of old-fashioned crane shots to take in the view.

Vertiginous cliffs feature, signifying risk and vulnerability. And they are even more striking when the location moves to Cornwall. The film is a visual feast.

Rebecca is a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic of the same name that won the best film Oscar in 1940. With Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in the lead roles, it was the director’s first Hollywood feature.

There is, almost inevitably in any text influenced by Hitchcock, a vulnerable blonde. Lily James (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, and Baby Driver) steps into the role of potential victim here.

Since it was published in 1938, the Daphne du Maurier Gothic novel on which the film is based has never been out of print. It is a psycho-drama of passion, lust and jealousy, themes that never date. Every new generation needs its Rebecca re-envisaged.

James’ character, who is nameless until she marries and becomes a Mrs, has arrived in the luxe resort with her employer, Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). She is the older woman’s paid companion.

James plays a girl who is well read, can sketch and drive a car. Not an everyday skill in the 1930s when Rebecca is set. But she is poor, a sin in those days, and not terribly welcome in the ruling class.

Critically, she is without parents or other family. As a woman alone in the world, she is prey to the worst of the worst kind of rogue and villain.

The two women are staying at a ritzy hotel, the type of place that attracts anyone who is anybody, like wealthy English widowers who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Since his wife drowned in a boating accident a year ago, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) has found little to keep himself amused, until an awkward, self-conscious English girl (Lily James) appears.

There is a whirlwind romance and the new Mrs de Winter is carried off to the remote pile in Cornwall that her husband calls home, Manderley.

It is classic entrapment. Mrs de Winter’s creeping self-doubt spirals as the mansion’s small army of servants sideline their new boss and show how inadequate she is for the role she finds herself in.

Audiences new to the Rebecca story might expect Max de Winter to be the source of danger. Du Maurier’s Rebecca was born into the same era as the original  ‘gaslight’ book and film, after all.

But no. Threats to the new Mrs de Winter emanate from the grave. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is spooked by the black hair of her dead rival that’s still entangled in a hairbrush. By the elegant copperplate ‘R’ on objects scattered around, a sure sign that nothing of what she seems to own, can or ever will belong to her.

As head of the household staff, Mrs Danvers – Kristin Scott Thomas icy tough in the role – leads the charge, humiliating and undermining her new mistress. Danvers even gets her to think of throwing herself out the window.

It is ‘Danny’, loyal to her dead mistress to the end, who is the arch manipulator, and the bitter rival. With her minimalist acting style, Scott Thomas is very effective as the housekeeper, though I would have thought her character was ripe for some re-interpretation in the early 21st century.

This classic tale of female insecurity and jealousy has been directed by Ben Wheatley, from a screenplay written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse.

It’s a traditional but unadventurous adaptation. The murder that didn’t make it into the film in 1940 is there but it is surprising that it has not had a tweak so it speaks more directly to our times.

It’s hard not to wonder why Wheatley, who is a critically acclaimed British indie director, didn’t give today’s audiences more to think about in his Rebecca. Didn’t the production’s financial backers allow him the scope to do so? Some surprises wouldn’t have been too big a risk.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 October 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

Feature image: Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca. Courtesy Netflix