Rebecca review — a melodrama pretending to be a thriller

October 15, 2020 (Last updated: January 27, 2023)
M.N. Miller 0
Movie Reviews, Movies


Maybe Mrs. Danvers was right. This Rebecca has us longing for the original.

I imagine studios trying to get talented actors to star in any Alfred Hitchcock film must be something like when Armie Hammer whispers to Lily James in Rebecca, “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool.” It’s an intoxicating proposition and probably an impetuous one. Every time I see someone attempting to remake a classic — the original Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature that won the Academy Award for Best Picture — I wonder why they can’t pick from the millions of badly received ones. So, studios do what studios do. In this case, Netflix remakes a classic that has a promising start with a gorgeous looking piece of filmmaking in its first act. Ultimately, the second half forgets what made the original film so successful. Maybe Mrs. Danvers was right. This Rebecca has us longing for the original.

Rebecca is based on the original source material, a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. The film begins with an unnamed young female servant (Lily James) accompanying her rich but decrepit socialite Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) to Monte Carlo. There, the young servant meets Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a handsome widower who decides to marry the young woman after a whirlwind, two-week romance. They travel back together to his gothic estate, Manderley. There, the new Mrs. de Winter meets Maxim’s staff, including the overbearing head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas). From there, she can’t escape the enduring memory of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, which is kept alive by her new husband’s reluctance to talk about the subject and Mrs. Danvers.

The film’s script abandons the psychological aspect of emotional abuse that Thomas’s Mrs. Danvers has on its protagonist. While Rebecca remains content on showing the conflict between the two, it fails to demonstrate the cruel nature of the psychological torment she has over the replacement, Mrs. De Winter. The whole scenario comes across as cheap and territorial instead of the torment of true isolation. The second issue here is the fumbling of the reveal of what the film has been leading up to. It lacks the subtle nuances of the book and the masterful suspense of the Hitchcock version. This leaves only a standard, contrived race by a character to gather evidence that manages to result in a humdrum experience that’s a letdown.

Director Ben Wheatley (Free Fire) and screenwriter Jane Goldman (X-Men: Days of Future Past) do capture the theme of classism and jealousy, with the novel’s original gothic tale having an obvious influence of Rebecca from the Hebrew Bible. The romantic heat between the two leads is evident during the film’s gorgeous first act (Armie Hammer was born to play twins or the guy who can fill out a vintage suit in any English period piece). If anything, Kristen Scott Thomas’s Mrs. Danvers, the source material’s most interesting and complex character, needed a more prominent screen presence. This would have ramped up the overall tension and suspense the film sorely needed.

This will be a toss-up recommendation for most. You could argue that you need to base your judgment on the film being presented. While that is true, this version of Rebecca is not a straight drama. It does incorporate mystery and the attempt of psychological suspense. A recent film called The Nest did a magnificent job displaying the psychological trauma of isolation. Film’s like Martha Marcy May Marlene explore the psychological abuse and manipulation that produces paranoia. Both of these films, by director Sean Durkin, are masterful displays of psychological drama that produce thrills for the viewer organically. This film version of Rebecca is a melodrama pretending to be a dramatic thriller with a psychological edge. The aforementioned know what they are, the latter is just trying to be it.

That’s the difference.

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