Netflix's 'Rebecca' remake a pale specter of Hitchcock's film classic

  • Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) brings his new bride (Lily James) home to his family's estate in Netflix's "Rebecca."

    Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) brings his new bride (Lily James) home to his family's estate in Netflix's "Rebecca." Courtesy of Netflix

 
 
Posted10/22/2020 6:00 AM

"Rebecca" -- ★ ½

"Rebecca," Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of the novel by Daphne du Maurier, is one of the greatest, most influential movies ever made. A masterwork of style, tone and technical prowess, the gothic tale of obsession and suspense fused the kind of lush romance associated with "women's pictures" of the era with the subversive shadowplay of film noir.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A textbook example of great direction (Hitchcock edited the movie "in camera," judiciously choosing his shots and setups to prevent producer David O. Selznick from fiddling with it in the cutting room) and magnificent performances, "Rebecca" is a one-movie film school, a gemlike artifact of cinematic perfection.

Which makes it all the more curious that anyone would think it needed remaking. Netflix's opulent but strangely lifeless "Rebecca" -- starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas in roles that will forever belong to Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson -- follows du Maurier's narrative more faithfully. And director Ben Wheatley does his best to bring carnal naturalism and color to a story that Hitchcock portrayed in icier chiaroscuro. But it turns out that Hitchcock's instincts were more in tune with material that dealt with twinning, sexual competition and necrophilic obsession: Where his "Rebecca" exerted mesmerizing power by way of its marmoreal beauty and creepy psychodynamics, Wheatley's is simply a plotty, garden-variety melodrama.

Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), top, torments her employer's new wife (Lily James) in Netflix's "Rebecca."
Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), top, torments her employer's new wife (Lily James) in Netflix's "Rebecca." - Courtesy of Netflix

Admittedly, this iteration of "Rebecca" is easy on the eyes. When the movie opens, James' character -- still unnamed after all these years -- is working as a lady's companion to the social-climbing Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who is vacationing in Monte Carlo. They meet an attractive widower named Maxim de Winter (Hammer) at their hotel, and after Mrs. Van Hopper is felled by illness, he and James' character begin a courtship against the sunny backdrop of the French Riviera. When they marry, Max takes the second Mrs. de Winter to Manderley, his family estate on the stormy English coast, where his first wife, Rebecca, held court as a legendary beauty.

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What ensues is a supernatural game of cat and mouse, as Mrs. de Winter competes with the ghost of her husband's first wife, egged on by the wily Mrs. Danvers, played by Scott Thomas with the sang-froid of a seasoned gaslighter. The genius of "Rebecca" is how it keeps the audience guessing about what's real and imagined, especially when it concerns the title character; whereas Olivier's Max played into that ambiguity, Hammer's bland handsomeness can't project the necessary degree of menace to keep his new bride off balance.

For her part, James overplays the trembling, doe-like naiveté of the innocent ingénue. By the time the second Mrs. de Winter takes matters into her own hands, the transformation is perfunctory and not entirely believable.

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Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ann Dowd

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Other: A Netflix release. Rated PG-13 for sexuality, partial nudity, mature thematic elements and smoking. 123 minutes

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