Director: Ben Wheatley Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristen Scott-Thomas Running Time: 121 minutes
Did Netflix, one wonders, agree to distribute a fresh adaptation of Rebecca out of a higher-up’s affection for the source material, or a canny belief that it would make fertile ground to grow acclaim and awards? Or having run the numbers, one might continue to wonder, did they determine that the beautiful faces of stars Lily James and Armie Hammer would be suitably alluring to get subscribers to click on them, and that the title was recognisable enough to squeeze out a week or two in the ‘Trending Now’ tab? The mind tends to do a lot of wandering while trying to take in this latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s literary classic, a disappointingly vacant ‘return to Mandalay’ from creative forces that seem to have spent little time in the grounds of this story on their first go around. The result feels like a perfume advert that overstays its welcome to the tune of two hours; stale and lingering.
Lily James, all emotions channeled towards Knightly-brand period pluck and fluster, is introduced as the plan and proper companion to holidaying American Mrs. Van Hopper, as played by Ann Dowd. The wealthy older woman is supposed to boorishly trod all over her ward, but James’ character seems quietly confident otherwise, talented, bright and beautiful. This comes with the territory in romance stories for certain, though Rebecca generally requires a leading performer more credibly insecure. It helps in understanding why this young woman is so quickly swept up by the mysterious Maxim de Winter, whisked off to his stately Cornwall home after a quick courtship. As the new Mrs. de Winter, the shadow of Maxim’s previous wife Rebecca looms large, with everyone constantly at pains to point out the light of her life and the tragedy of her death. The new Mrs. de Winter becomes isolated in this massive, moody mansion, haunted by the spectre of everything that she isn’t and needled by the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Secrets and lies spiral, revealing intriguing and lurid characters beneath the stiff veneer of British propriety. All very gothic, traditional romance with a heavy dose of arsenic added. That’s the idea anyway.
Much of what has gone wrong with this turgid adaptation can be seen through its version of Maxim de Winter, who in the original novel and previous adaptations is much older than his new wife; terse, temperamental and who carries himself with the stiff rod up the backside of old money. Here he is played by Armie Hammer, just 3 years James’ senior, a performer who even when on point has more of a Harvard Himbo vibe. Here he is very much not on point.
The pair work fine together when staring at each other all moony-eyed, but Hammer is a poor fit for the character’s guarded nature, coming across more lost. The film in general shares his failure to be evasive, bluntly stating the characters’ inner conflicts through bad dialogue and campy dream sequences, and failing to tap into any of the power dynamics between the cast. Everyone hits the story beats, differences in class and sex in particular are just reeled off in dialogue if they’re addressed at all, without any trust in the audience to pick things up on their own, or any subtlety to keep them guessing. Not to be unkind, but it’s all a bit ITV, a small-minded misuse of budget by director Ben Wheatley.
Wheatley is prolific and eager, happy to try out different styles of filmmaking and comfortable veering between low-budget work and studio gun-for-hire stuff. It’s a laudably open approach for the indie-film success story but inevitably his output is very uneven, and his approach to this source material is confidently wrongheaded. Bold, bright colours and modern costuming are an attempt by the director to make the story feel present, instead everything looks cheap and garish, like a perfume advert that overstays its welcome. His camera, apart from a few very rare out-of-control sequences with Mrs. de Winters at her wits end, can’t find the drama in this story, almost everything is rote and underplayed. Balancing the tone, moving from romance to horror to court room drama, is a difficult assignment but one very much failed here; you can feel the edit here straining for ad breaks, permission for the viewer to look away granted regularly as scenes repeat their purposes or drag out needlessly.
Kristen Scott-Thomas, all pursed lips and narrowed eyes, has been giving some credit for her portrayal as the scheming Mrs. Danvers. It’s just short of campy enough to be entertaining, really like everyone here the performance is stiff and overly-mannered, it all speaks to a disinterest or disengagement with the source material; dispassionate and misguided. It’s a shame, because the bleak Wheatley of Kill List and A Field in England could have made a genuinely fresh and engaging take on this story, something disorienting and off-the-wall that picks away at the nastiness revealed in these rich people and their phoney airs and graces. Instead it’s a film trying to do something different that ends up doing nothing, a dull and lifeless new version that can’t hope to live up to its predecessors. We’d all be better off quite frankly if it jumped out the window.(1.5 / 5)