Rebecca is light entertainment with something to savour

John McKeown on Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020, UK).

Compared to Hitchock’s plum pudding, Ben Wheatley’s 2020 version of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is as light as a soufflė. But there’s still something to savour. It’s hard to avoid making comparisons between Hitch’s 1940 effort and this new Netflix original when many scenes appear as exact copies, and there’s little to no departure from the sequence of events.

I found myself hankering for the solidity of the two leads played by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Maxim de Winter and Mrs de Winter. Heartthrob Armie Hammer and Lily James’ have perilously little charisma, and as for Rebecca herself—Maxim’s recently deceased wife whose fierce spirit saturates almost every frame of Hitchock’s adaptation—she’s entirely absent. 

The first part of the story moves at a snappy and crackling pace, set in a beautifully shot airy lavish hotel in Monte Carlo, where the future Mrs D (Lily James) is scraping a living as companion to the obnoxious Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who tells her socially awkward employee: “When you trap a man between your legs they don’t stick around for long.” But Maxim is already stuck, as Mrs Van Hopper witnesses when opening her hotel room door on the newly betrothed pair in a passionate kiss. Wheatley highlights the huge social leap her badly-paid companion has made by showing the barely disguised contempt with which the unnamed assistant is treated by the waiters and staff of the hotel—a class aspect given more attention in this version—and which is later viciously reinforced by Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas). 

There are other appealing touches in the early scenes: Maxim and his new companion lying on the beach, building a tiny wall with sand grains on the girl’s bareback as she talks languidly and poetically about “bottling memories.” And the—very contemporary—conviction with which he groans “I hate when they do this!” as they drive into the grounds of Maxim’s ancestral home, Manderley, and are confronted by the assembled servants in all their spotless livery. Once out of the car, and inspection complete, the Lord of the Manor throws his new Lady over his shoulder and carries her over the threshold. Hammer’s Maxim has some real definition in these rare comic moments. 

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020, UK). Mrs De Winter and Maxim De Winter (Lily James, Armie Hammer).

Once in the ancestral home, dominated by the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, Keeper of the Flame of the deceased Rebecca, the “true” Mrs de Winter, Hammer’s Maxim becomes a mere cipher of the plot, which is disastrous for the potency of the story. Wheatley’s scriptwriters turn him into a sleepwalker, who leaves the warm bed of his new wife and pads to Rebecca’s apartment in the west wing of the house. “Don’t touch him!” Mrs Danvers tells the distracted wife, who’s followed him one night, “it’s dangerous to touch a sleepwalker.” When awake Maxim remains close-lipped and increasingly estranged from his wife, whose attempts to be the new “Mistress of Manderley” founder on the icy rock of Mrs Danvers’ contempt. But this estrangement isn’t fleshed out by Hammer, and feels completely arbitrary rather than driven by the hateful memories of life with Rebecca that returning to the house has reignited. 

The new Mrs de Winter fares better than her husband, despite the scriptwriters’ attempts to enmesh her in similar will-sapping dream escapades. One night, following him once more to Rebecca’s door, she’s sucked down and swallowed by what appears to be—it’s difficult to tell in the dim light—a floor full of clinging ivy. On the night of the annual Manderley Ball, which Mrs D has reinstated in a gallant attempt to make the estate live again, she’s similarly enveloped by the guests in fancy dress, ritualistically chanting “Rebecca! Rebecca, Rebecca! “ A cameo appearance by Jason Williamson of The Sleaford Mods as a drunk folk singer chanting in the kitchen “below stairs” certainly raises the temperature of this feverish scene, but it still loosens, rather than adds, to the tension of the story. 

Kristin Scott Thomas’ Mrs Danvers is the icy pivot who keeps the whole thing from going completely slack. Whether it’s her studied perplexity at the gaucheness of the new Mrs de Winter’s ignorance of life in a great house, her seemingly guileless corrections, as when she tells her that the guest rooms, where she’s housed Mrs D and her husband, “are never empty for long” or the full-frontal character assassination culminating in advice that suicide is the only solution for the failing wife, each appearance is a perfectly controlled blast of icy fresh air.

Sam Riley as Rebecca’s cousin Favell, looking every inch the dashing rogue, with just a jigger of sleaze, also smartly whips the narrative tension along. Favell was one of Rebecca’s countless lovers and apparently has proof that Rebecca’s death was no accident. Mrs D is initially innocent of his role and intentions and is literally swept off her feet when he first appears at Manderley. They go riding, on the same horse, Favell guiding her from behind, and this erotic fillip is sharper for the fact that it’s part of Favell and Danvers’ plot to fatally disgrace Mrs D.  

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020, UK). Maxim De Winter, Mrs De Winter, and Jack Favell (Lily James, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley).

But, while she’s overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being Lady of the Manor and trying to fill Rebecca’s high-backed shoes, Wheatley’s version has her gamely taking a far more active part in fighting back against the powerful coalition against her—Danvers, Favell, and the dead Rebecca. In the penultimate scenes Lily James’ Mrs D steps out of, and kicks off, her shrinking quivering violet role to turn Sherlock, racing to London before the police to get her hands on a piece of evidence which will trump Favell’s. The reins of the story are pulled tight, and by an energetic woman with no man prodding her from behind. It’s also a refreshing twist on the same sequence of events in the Hitchcock version. 

But Wheatley keeps pretty much in step with that version, making it difficult to forget, often as if, like a palimpsest, we were looking through the tissue of his film to the more substantial version beneath. At some points it seems as if he’s actively drawing our attention back to it. When Manderley burns we see a replica of the shot from the Hitchcock version: Rebecca’s curtained bed about to be engulfed in flame.    

Disappointingly, Rebecca herself is entirely missing. There’s no sense of the presence of this beautiful, mysterious, provocatively self-centred woman who had men dancing on a string. She lives in the faces and voices of the characters in Hitchcock’s version, and in the very air of Manderley, but Wheatley has to evoke her by rather cruder means. A great, weirdly twisting swarm of blackbirds, remnants of her dark hair drawn from her brush by Mrs D, the silhouette of a scarlet-clad woman striding down the hall, and, in a scene which should have been left on the editing room floor, a skeleton rising to the surface through the twilit sea in which she was supposed to have drowned. Earlier attempts to portray her as a force of nature through identification with the sea are almost as crude. On the Riviera, Mrs D tries to cajole Maxim into the water for a swim. We witness this cajolery at eye-level with the choppy waves splashing around the delighted girl, and, for a moment, expect a Great White Shark to answer her calls rather than a broody boyfriend.

These awkward moments don’t seriously interrupt the entertaining flow of the film. And while it may be difficult to accept it as a completely free-standing adaptation it can be regarded as a kind of risqué sequel to Hitchcock’s version, and the novel. “We can never go back to Manderley again” opines Joan Fontaine in that version; while Wheatley’s Mrs D isn’t missing it at all, languidly insisting from the heat of their hotel room in the closing scene that “we’ve left the dead behind us”, she and Maxim are still passionately in love and living a rich bohemian life drifting around the warm coasts of the Mediterranean. Stuffy old England is far behind and in the closing shot. Mrs D, wrapping her arms tightly around Maxim’s back, looks with direct provocation into the camera, suggesting that Rebecca may have won after all. — John McKeown


Director Ben Wheatley

Writers Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Cinematographer Laurie Rose

Editor Jonathan Amos

Composer Clint Mansell

Cast Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Armie Hammer, Ann Dowd

John McKeown

John McKeown is a freelance arts journalist and writer based in Prague. He was theatre critic for the Irish Daily Mail and The Irish Independent, and has also written for The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, Prager Zeitung and Exeunt Magazine. His poetry has been published by Ireland’s Salmon Press and Waterloo Press in the UK.