The story of Rebecca has held audiences under its spell for over 80 years. First as a novel, then two years later through Alfred Hitchock’s Hollywood debut film, eventually a stage play, two BBC miniseries, and now Netflix is offering up the gothic tale to a new generation.
Indeed, the character and story leave such a chilling impression that even the author, Daphne duMaurie, was haunted by her own creation many years and novels later. Influence, iconography, and other adaptations aside, this latest telling may be the most tepid so far, though it will hardly be the last.
Lily James plays our protagonist. As always, she is unnamed just as her predecessor, Rebecca, is unseen. James’s character is shy and insecure, browbeat by her employer as they vacation in a Monte Carlo casino. There they encounter the dashing and mysterious widower Maxim de Winter (a brooding Armie Hammer). Soon James and Hammer’s characters fall into a whirlwind romance, and rather than suffer separation Maxim decides that they should get married.
Power dynamics are a major theme in Rebecca. The young woman of the story is at the mercy of her gregarious employer, and later at the mercy of Rebecca’s memory in the mind of Maxim and his household staff. In the original story there is a pronounced age difference between the married couple. This is muted in the Netflix film. While James and Hammer are very nice to look at, it’s the first indication that those involved in the film may not understand all the elements of the story they’re here to tell.
Just what happened to Rebecca is not a topic for conversation. Any time anyone stirs up the memory Maxim grows agitated, and we are warned that he has a terrible temper. After a brief honeymoon he takes his new bride to his ancestral home, Manderley, where the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself removed from the warm sun of the French Riviera and cast into Rebecca’s icy shadow. While the rest of the estate staff offer the new Mrs. de Winter varying degrees of awkward welcome, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) does everything she can to put her off-balance.
So begins the psychological cat-and-mouse game around which all the suspense is built. Ultimately, the question is less “what happened to Rebecca,” but whether or not Mrs. de Winter will break under the pressure of her own self-doubt, wild imagination, and the vicious manipulations of Mrs. Danvers.
The first two thirds of this adaptation do a fair job of keeping us invested, though some of the visual tricks to which director Ben Wheatley resorts are garish and clumsy. Heading into the final act, however, Mrs. de Winter’s character begins to rock more wildly than the plot or a boat in a storm.
It’s no fault of James, who does an admirable job and manages some chemistry with the wooden Hammer. No, in an effort to give her character an arc and give her some agency to appeal (pander?) to contemporary audiences, the writers have her abruptly become someone else. Soon she’s standing up to Mrs. Danvers in a way that is entirely unearned. Had James been permitted to infuse those encounters with some of her earlier unease, as if she were testing the waters before taking command, we could appreciate the growth.
As it is, her character and the entire plot itself are dumbed down as we race to the finish line. Ultimately, Mrs. de Winter simply becomes more masculine. The shift doesn’t sit well here, though I suppose students of du Maurier and queer theory may find it of it some interest.
Rebecca has always featured different kinds of femininity. One is ruthless, consuming, manipulative. Another is insecure yet nurturing. We innately recognize both types as true. So when this Mrs. de Winter suddenly morphs into something else it’s unnatural and ultimately unsatisfying.
Fans of the novel will notice that, up until the end, this telling follows the story a little closer than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version. Meanwhile, fans of the movie will notice that Wheatley lacks Hitch’s delicate touch. The Master of Suspense is in no danger of losing his title to this newcomer. Does the 2020 Rebecca stand on its own? Hardly. It withers in the shadow of the Rebeccas that came before.