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Film Review: “Rebecca” Offers Visually Rich, Dramatically Poor Landscape

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 21st, 2020

Film poster: “Rebecca”

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.

British writer Daphne du Maurier published her fifth novel, Rebecca, in 1938. Two years later, her compatriot, film director Alfred Hitchcock, turned it into his first American feature, starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson, winning two Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Black-and-White Cinematography, in the process. Since then, this Gothic tale of sin and consequence has been adapted numerous times, for different media, attracting new audiences each time, even as the book, itself, has remained equally popular. Du Maurier’s works (at least the ones I’ve read, including this one) share a misanthropic worldview, in which innocents must learn to swim in a sea of sharks, twisting and turning in a whirlpool of longing and despair. In Rebecca, the unnamed main character starts off sweet and yearning, yet ends up so desperate for approval from the self-loathing and self-centered creature she has married that she becomes his accomplice in covering up a murder. It’s a nice life, if you can get it.

Now comes a new cinematic version of the story, directed by Ben Wheatley (Free Fire), with Lily James (Little Woods), Armie Hammer (On the Basis of Sex) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives) reprising the roles of the narrator, Maxim de Winter and Mrs. Danvers. They each give respectable performances, following their cues to be respectively raw and insecure, arrogant and aloof, icy and cruel. The visuals are lush, especially in the opening scenes on the French Riviera, and the score, by Clint Mansell (Stoker) swells at the appropriate moments to proper effect. All the elements are in place, therefore, for this iteration of Rebecca to be as affecting as any other, especially since today’s world, devoid of the Hollywood censors that plagued filmmakers of Hitchcock’s time, does not require that the crime at the narrative’s center be sugar-coated. There’s killing afoot. Let’s watch!

l-r: Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter in REBECCA. Cr. Kerry Brown ©Netflix

We follow our not-so-plucky heroine as she goes from proverbial rags to riches, meeting her soon-to-be husband, the phenomenally rich (and handsome!) widower Maxim de Winter while in the employ of an older woman as companion and general lackey. Despite their vast differences of social class, the young woman and de Winter fall in love, returning shortly to his vast estate in England, Manderley, where it is immediately clear that the life the protagonist thought she was getting is haunted by the ghost of his deceased wife, the titular Rebecca, whose memory is kept most decidedly alive by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. She loved her former mistress deeply, having cared for her since she was a child (though her adoration is more than maternal) and mourns her passing. No one could possible measure up, least of all this hapless gamine de Winter has picked up while abroad. The stage is set for conflict.

Unfortunately, while everyone appears to try their best, this particular Rebecca is dramatically inert. Everyone’s motivations are simultaneously clear and muddled, patriarchal oppression colliding with vaguely feminist notions in a soggy mess. Wheatley doesn’t help matters by refusing to embed his characters organically into the sets and landscapes, their physical selves seeming to exist in the ethereal nightmare the narrator evokes with her opening words of “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Intellectually, it makes a kind of sense to create this artificial construct, given that the possibly supernatural forces at work are mere venal human machinations; everything is therefore false. But emotionally, we remain at arm’s length, never able to connect with anyone, and therefore adrift as is Rebecca, herself, in the afterlife. We are pawns in Wheatley’s soulless game, and it’s neither all that pleasant nor compelling. Tonight, I’ll dream of something different.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA. Cr. Kerry Brown ©Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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