By Caryn James15th October 2020The latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is “bland”, argues Caryn James, who writes that this film “feels as if someone at Downton Abbey were having a bad day”.D
Daphne du Maurier wrote the novel Rebecca inspired by jealousy and insecurity, but it all turned out great in the end. Several years before, she had discovered letters to her husband from his beautiful former fiancée, who had taken her own life. How could she compete with a ghost? Du Maurier channelled that anxiety into her 1938 bestseller about a mousy young woman, a never-named narrator who marries Maxim de Winter. His impossibly glamourous first wife, Rebecca, had died in an unexplained shipwreck. The second Mrs de Winter becomes the ill-prepared mistress of Maxim’s great estate of Manderley, where her timidity is no match for the villainous housekeeper Mrs Danvers or the lingering spectre of Rebecca. The Gothic plot is enough to make the novel work, but the themes of self-doubt and a marriage fraught with secrets are what make it endure, and such a rich source for adaptation.
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Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film has become a classic, of course: a psychological thriller that brilliantly translated the novel’s Gothic atmosphere to the screen, demonstrating how well Du Maurier’s story could morph over time. Joan Fontaine’s subservience as the heroine, an extreme version of what society accepted at the time, plays more strongly now as a sign of her self-doubt. The film even lends itself to a feminist reading, with the heroine a woman who learns to come into her own.
This new Rebecca feels as if someone at Downton Abbey were having a bad day
With so much going for it, how could the new adaptation of Rebecca have turned out to be so bland? Lily James is charming as the heroine, and Kristin Scott Thomas is a gleefully wicked Mrs Danvers, but that is hardly enough. Director Ben Wheatley, known for dark, stylish and sometimes violent films including High-Rise (2015), always seemed like an odd choice to direct. And he was, but not for the expected reasons. Wheatley is good at the part you wouldn’t have guessed at, capturing the sunny colourful romance of Monte Carlo, where the heroine and Maxim first meet, and then the sumptuous look and luxurious life of Manderley. He is terrible at the part you’d have thought he’d get right, the mystery under the surface, the Gothic atmosphere and suspense, the aura of being emotionally haunted by the past. This new Rebecca feels as if someone at Downton Abbey were having a bad day.
(Credit: Kerry Brown / Netflix)
The flatness is there even when you take the film out of Hitchcock’s shadow. It begins with the narrator’s voiceover of the book’s famous first line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” a dream in which the house is in ruins. But this brief, elliptical opening seems like an obligation, not an ominous clue. Soon we are in Monte Carlo, where the heroine is travelling as paid companion to the gauche American Mrs Van Hopper (the well-cast Ann Dowd). Maxim turns up, Armie Hammer in a mustard-yellow suit, driving a cream-coloured convertible. The setting is the late-1930s but he looks like a refugee from The Great Gatsby a decade earlier. Maxim is meant to be mysterious, but throughout the film Hammer makes him opaque. There’s a difference between hiding something and just being dull.
You can’t blame the heroine for falling for the excitement he offers, though. James, with a blonde bob and a tentative manner, effectively makes her love-struck as they drive along the sparkling coast, and innocent enough to ignore warning signs about Maxim’s past. When he asks her to come to Manderley with him, she wonders, “As your secretary?” and he recites one of the novel’s notable lines: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” The screenplay has wiped out most of the other period touches that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in the 30s. Leaving “little fool” in suggests how conflicted the film is between being faithful to its source and daring to move beyond it.
The film sleepwalks through scenes meant to be tense
At Manderley, full of intimidating family portraits and grand staircases, they are greeted by a glaring Mrs Danvers, in a severe suit and lush red lipstick. Scott Thomas is the most successful at charting a trajectory for her character. As she gives her new mistress a tour of the house, and the new Mrs de Winter gushes that she has never seen anything like it, Mrs Danvers says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d been a ladies’ maid.” The line is delivered with just enough condescension to be cutting. Eventually, she reveals a possessiveness tinged with madness. Finding the heroine in Rebecca’s bedroom, kept as if she were alive with her nightgown on the bed, Mrs Danvers urges her to touch how soft it is, terrifying the heroine with her intensity. Whether her obsession with the woman she calls “my Rebecca” is erotic or not is, as in all the versions, left to the viewer and not especially hinted at here.
The film sleepwalks through other scenes meant to be tense, though. The heroine discovers an unused boathouse filled with Rebecca’s things, but isn’t nearly suspicious enough. She throws Manderley’s customary costume ball and makes a terrible faux pas. Keeley Hawes enlivens the few scenes she has as Maxim’s sister, a down-to-earth breath of kindness and fresh air.
When the second Mrs de Winter learns the facts of Rebecca’s life and death, we see that she has lost her innocence. As Du Maurier made clear, it is not truth the heroine cares about, but the knowledge that Maxim loves her, a dark ending that this pallid adaptation doesn’t begin to earn.