Much like its main characters, Netflix’s Rebecca was doomed from the start.
When adapting Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic masterpiece, director Ben Wheatley set himself an ambitious task. The original novel, focusing on a chilling love triangle (husband, wife, dead-ex-wife), has haunted generations of readers, and was the basis for Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning film of the same name. Although Netflix’s remake is watchable, Wheatley, like the new Mrs De Winter, lives in the shadow of those who have come before.
Few can deny that this film is superficially gorgeous, yet when we strip away the glossy cinematography we are left with something rather lifeless. The film begins when Maxim De Winter, the film’s Byronic eye-candy, meets his new bride in the South of France and whisks her off to his Cornish mansion. As promised in the trailer, the adaptation is filled with shots of windswept beaches, winding ebony staircases, and glittering chandeliers, in addition to Wheatley’s clever use of lighting paying homage to film noir. However, whilst this remake may be visually impressive, the script is lacklustre, and Du Maurier’s characters become disappointingly two-dimensional. Maxim, famously portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the Hitchcock version, becomes forgettable in the new screenplay and at moments his role seems simply functional. The only key character who avoids this ‘style over substance’ treatment is Mrs Danvers, and Kristin Scott Thomas steals the show as the ghoulish housekeeper.
Unlike the 1940s adaptation, which was restricted by censorship, Wheatley has free reign to explore the motives for Danvers’ hatred towards the new Mrs De Winter, namely her lesbian love for Rebecca. To really break boundaries Wheatley could have explored this more explicitly, yet it is true that the new film breathes more life into Danvers, so that she appears as flesh and blood rather than just a nightmarish phantom.
Although Thomas is well cast, unfortunately the same cannot be said for Lily James as the leading lady. When I found an article in Harper’s Bazaar, showing how to recreate Mrs De Winter’s ‘butter-blond bob’, I could picture Du Maurier turning in her grave. As in Jane Eyre, on which Rebecca is based, the protagonist’s plainness is pivotal to the novel, as the new, dowdy bride acts as a foil to the first wife. Can we really expect Maxim’s granny to be disappointed when he brings home Lily James, who constantly looks like she’s stepped out of a perfume advert? Even though James does her best to stutter her lines and act fidgety, she is not the right fit for the role. Granted, the posters may look good, but Hollywood’s blinkered obsession with beauty has once again chipped away at the heart of this narrative.
So, to anyone who is undecided about watching this film, I would firstly point you in the direction of the book. No matter the merit of his adaptation, Wheatley was always going to attract criticism by stepping on Hitchcock’s toes, but arguably the untouchable reputation of the first film is somewhat undeserved. Hitchcock himself disowned his version, branding it as ‘old-fashioned’, although the real issue for both films is that the psychological elements of the novel are untranslatable for the screen.
I can best describe the reading of Rebecca as a possession; whilst the narrator sickens herself with jealousy, we too become ensnared by Du Maurier’s invasive prose style. In a moment of revelation, the novel’s protagonist claims, ‘I could fight the living but I could not fight the dead’. It is about time that directors do the same, and pick their battles wisely. Du Maurier’s Rebecca cannot be beaten.
Fetaured Image Source: Still via Netflix / Youtube