Directors can be quite stubborn sometimes, often to a fault. Many of them who endeavour into the realms of remakes renounce the term. They’ll say “I am not remaking that film, I’m re-adapting the book on which that film was based” as if that somehow makes the two resulting films impossible and unfair to compare. The Coen Brothers did this with True Grit, but of course, their efforts were far greater than that of Henry Hathaway’s some 40 years earlier, and as such, it is a rousing success story. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca was the only film directed by the maestro to win best picture; in many ways, it is his greatest gift to cinema. Now somehow someway Netflix have deemed it not worthy of standing alone because once again Daphne Du Maurier’s novel is being adapted by Ben Wheatley.
Starring Lily James and Armie Hammer in the roles once occupied by Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, Rebecca is the story of Maxim de Winter (Hammer) and his two wives. The first, the now deceased, Rebecca, a supposedly perfect woman in every fashion, whom one character describes as, in so many words, someone annoyingly impossible to dislike. And the second, known only as Mrs. de Winter (James), the woman Maxim remarries after a not so discrete love affair in Monte Carlo.
It is said love affair which takes up the opening portion of the film, and whilst it is well filmed it is triflingly strange. What is supposed to be the glossy romance preceding the oncoming melodrama plays out oddly Woody Allen-like. Not in his sort of pretentious intellectual romance style, but more in the way of presentation. The beachy colour pallet, the sudden and un-foreshadowed rain, the twinkling guitar fluttering in and out of certain scenes, which flies a little too far from the music of the second half of the film. It all feels dreadfully modern, and very much like something from, say, Midnight in Paris, a wonderful picture in its own right, but not a product of the same thematic intensity of Rebecca.
Though when life threatens to tear the duo apart, the film must shift to continue on its way. With no family to talk her out of it, and nothing and no one as enticing to follow, the nameless young woman is soon the ‘new’ Mrs de Winter. She travels with her husband to his estate, Manderley, a beautiful house on a charming piece of land along the English coast. Here she meets many people, mostly Maxim’s staff, and naught but one of them is of real importance that being the cold and mysterious Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
It is under her eerily constant gaze that Mrs. de Winter attempts to make Manderley her home, a task much easier said than done. Around every corner, almost literally, lies a reminder of Rebecca. Rooms are barred off as the mythical woman simply once used them, handkerchiefs with her embroidery are given exclusively to the new mistress of the house, and the personal artifacts that made up her existence litter seemingly every cupboard and draw. And whilst I understand this is the exact point of Rebecca, to generate this ghastly ghostly presence of a woman existing beyond the grave haunting her replacement, it all becomes a bit much. There’s only so many times you can take a bludgeoning over the head with how great this woman was while already knowing the inevitable twist. I’d say even for those of whom this is their first tussle with Rebecca’s mysteries it’s overly repetitive. At one point a hallucinatory sequence dissolves into complete self-parody when all the guests of the house begin to dance around Mrs. de Winter chanting “Rebecca” over and over.
The film follows as unevenly as its first half and ultimately just begs the question of, why? When the original was of such grand quality, why make this film? I may be called too harsh for asking this question, but when the product is so haphazard, I can think of no other avenue to approach this discussion. Where Hitchcock was inclined to thrill Wheatly is all too willing to brood and stylise and it simply doesn’t work, neither in comparison nor generally.
Though its very existence is baffling, there are some positives to this Netflix effort. First and foremost is the cinematography and production design overseen by Laurie Rose and Sarah Greenwood, respectively. Their efforts are undoubtedly overdone at points, but overall they combine to produce some wonderful shots that prove to be the only true and memorable highlights. Kristin Scott Thomas is too an exception to my scorn, she stuns at times and is the only performer of the main three who keeps up with the material, and she does so with a wretched poise borne from the dread-inducing capabilities of her character. James and Hammer are admirable throughout, but neither managed to strike me as Fontaine and Olivier did. I don’t think they were miscast; I just think they suffered from an unfortunate style over substance approach, and perhaps they would have found themselves more at home in roles such as these later in their careers.
All in all, Rebecca never justifies its existence. The effort is admirable at points, but for the most part, this is an uneven attempt at adapting something that was already so brilliantly done.
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