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Arts & Culture, Reviews

‘Rebecca’ remake falls flat

Netflix adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s renowned gothic classic fails to offer anything substantial

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Ben Wheatley’s version of “Rebecca” leaves out important elements of the original, including class commentary and a truly sinister antagonist, and the story suffers as a result.

Though director Ben Wheatley claims to offer a new interpretation of a well-loved classic, his version of “Rebecca” pales in comparison not only to the story’s 1938 source material but also to the famous Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation from 1940.

“Rebecca,” based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name, follows an unnamed young woman (Lily James) who meets a mysterious and wealthy English widower, Max de Winter (Armie Hammer), in Monte Carlo. Their love story, which unfolds over the course of a week, is set against the background of the lush French countryside. Everything seems perfect until they return to his estate, Manderley. As the woman attempts to settle into her position as the new Mrs. de Winter, it becomes clear that she’ll never quite live up to the perfection and sophistication of the previous Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. This feeling of inferiority is worsened by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who constantly reminds her of the perfection and irreplaceability of Max’s late wife.

In 1940, Hitchcock adapted “Rebecca” into an Oscar-winning psychological thriller, bringing du Maurier’s gothic romance to life on the black-and-white big screen. While Hitchcock’s adaptation is primarily faithful to the novel, it clarifies the fate of Mrs. Danvers, previously left ambiguous in du Maurier’s novel. In the final moments of the film, she set Manderley on fire along with everything inside it — including herself. By refusing to let Max and the new Mrs. de Winter live happily in the same place where Rebecca once thrived, she brings about her own death.

The 2020 adaptation offers a different ending as Wheatley diverges even further from the novel in his conclusion. After Mrs. Danvers escapes the burning mansion, and has one final confrontation with Mrs. de Winter, she jumps to her grave, leaping into the same water where Rebecca had drowned. Wheatley adds an additional scene where Max and Mrs. de Winterblissfully travel around Cairo together, searching for a new home.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Wheatley justifies his ending with two explanations: a desire to avoid the same ending as Hitchcock’s film, and a need to “bring (Danvers) back away from that kind of pantomime-y, villain-y character and bring her back more into someone who’s more sympathetic.”

Ironically, Wheatley’s decision to diminish the climax of the fire undercuts the integrity of the film. By reducing the significance of such a symbolic scene — which alludes to one of the most renowned gothic novels, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” — the suspense that haunted much of the film culminates in a lackluster ending.

The reimagined ending, which leaves the viewer with images of a happy husband and wife, is certainly sweet, but it ultimately argues that the love between Max de Winter and his new wife was the crux of the film, rather than the tension between love and jealousy, secrecy and truth. Wheatley’s aspiration to create an original interpretation of the novel flattens the storyline entirely.

Indeed, one of the film’s greatest failings is in its failure to build this sense of suspense adequately in the first place: The psychological thriller aspect of this gothic story is not manifested well in Wheatley’s adaptation. While we have a great understanding of whirlwind romances, we don’t really see Mrs. de Winter being haunted by Rebecca the way a viewer would expect. Mrs. Danvers’ cruelty is present, no doubt, but her role is stunted — she’s sinister and manipulative, but she isn’t the all-consuming malicious force ofHitchcock’s story. After she humiliates the second Mrs. de Winter at a costume ball, Mrs. Danvers all but disappears for the final third of the film, further diminishing the impact of her burning Manderley in the end.

Additionally, the question of class is downplayed, disappointing because it would have added a much more interesting dimension to the film and the relationships in it. We see the ways our young protagonist is so wholly unused to wealth and to interacting with members of English high society. Yet, when she is thrown into the vaulted position of Mrs. de Winter, her trouble navigating the sinister household seems more a result of Mrs. Danvers’ personal dislike of her than a struggle of a lower-class woman assuming a status she is unprepared for and unwelcome in. 

Despite all this, the movie is not without its moments: Lily James delivers a solid performance of the naivety, anxiety and uncertainty of the new Mrs. de Winter, and the modernity of production allows for interesting cinematography which plays with the changing environments of idyllic France and suppressive England. But what haunts Wheatley’s film is its inability to truly offer something to the classic as we know it. Despite a Netflix release and its 21st century style, the new adaptation of “Rebecca” fails to live up to its predecessor; just like its protagonist, the new film is overshadowed by its legacy.

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