Rebecca is an adaptation of the acclaimed novel of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier. It is about a young woman who is unnamed until she marries, "above her station," to Max de Winter. As the new Mrs. de Winter, the narrator is brought back to the ancestral home, Manderlay, which is figuratively haunted by the former Mrs. de Winter, the titular Rebecca. As Mrs. de Winter uncovers the secrets of Rebecca's mysterious death, she's driven mad by the calculating former servant of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers. The film stars Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Bryony Miller, Tom Goodman-Hill, Jeff Rawle, and Ann Dowd. The film is directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Jane Goldman, John Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
I didn't have a strong reaction to this film. I never read the novel and I remember liking the previous adaptation done by Alfred Hitchcock, but I couldn't get a handle on this adaptation. It felt like the whole runtime was haunted by the specter of something missing as the house, staff, friends and Max de Winter himself are haunted by the memory of Rebecca. It definitely wasn't recognizable as a Ben Wheatley film.
Wheatley has been around for a while creating darkly humorous movies about Brits. Some of his sensibilities and innovations remain, but for the most part it feels as if the film wanted more style over substance. The production design, costuming, set decoration, all of it is really beautiful to look at, but the story doesn't seem to want to match. Adaptation of a novel that was contemporary for its time and is now a period piece is a little bit of a strange proposition because with that sheen of hindsight, nothing feels lived in, it's all shiny and new.
What I wish were more overt were the titillating scenes. I couldn't tell if there had been a more risqué version of the film than the one I saw, but I was so intrigued by the nature of Mrs. de Winter being sort of naïve, yet excited at any sensual prospect. There were several scenes that had a short aspect of the sensuality, but I thought it could have been brought more to the forefront as the production didn't have to adhere to the Hays Code as Hitchcock did or leave it only as subtext as Du Maurier did in the novel. I started to sigh when a scene would begin with a little tease because I soon knew it would be over without a release.
There is one bit of technique that kept my attention. It's a little bit of editing that really helps with the playing of time and the ideas of memory. Wheatley and editor Jonathan Amos use cuts to show what is happening simultaneously or slightly in the future. It heightens certain scenes and gives characters a bit more of a chance to act out of the gaze of Mrs. de Winter. It also muddles the action, in a good way, as Mrs. de Winter's final descent into madness during the ball is a collection of quick cuts and fantasy that is dizzying and intriguing to watch.
I think what bothers me most about the film is not the film's fault at all, but it's the fault of all stories that have such a simple solution. If Max had told Mrs. de Winter the full story of Rebecca at the beginning or at least a half truth it would have been so much better for her. He should have just said something and let her in because it would have saved her a lot of heartbreak and anguish. Yet, that is the nature of the melodrama. That is the reason we watch, to see someone attempt to figure it all out.
What I will never and don't want to ever figure out is how Kristin Scott Thomas can do what she does. I like the mystery of her immense talent. I love watching her as a character who has a public face and a nasty side only seen in private. I love the way she plays the duplicity and love of Mrs. Danvers. She steals scenes without even a word, just an impeccable look or gesture.
I really don't like movies with a class element. It's something that makes me angry. To watch a person who tries their best, but is never good enough because she came from the wrong sperm and egg combination is utterly infuriating. Class systems are gross and tacky, so unfortunately this film had a strike against it when I remembered that aspect. Rebecca pretty to look at and some of the performances are delectable, but other than that, there's not much here. Unless you're a mega fan of period melodrama, you may just want to skip this one.