The brilliance of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) depends on the character development of its heroine, the very young and naïve protagonist, whose first name the reader never learns, and whose identity as the second Mrs. de Winter is subsumed by her husband and the shadowy presence of his dead first wife. Mimicking the Gothic novels of the previous century, in particular the Brontë sisters’ classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Rebecca is what we might call a “psychological thriller.” This particular genre demands two (potentially contradictory) qualities, plausibility and unpredictability. Ben Wheatley’s recent Netflix adaptation has neither.
In the novel, a young woman in her early 20s, employed as a companion to a rich lady in Monte Carlo, hastily marries a wealthy English widower, whereupon the couple return to his estate, Manderley. There, a sinister housekeeper jealously guarding the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter — the “Rebecca” of the title — induces inner turmoil in the insecure bride. Rather abruptly, the story, told in the first person by the heroine, turns into a sort of crime novel. Wheatley, known for his gratuitously gruesome horror movies, barges past all the intricacies, intrigue, and subtlety of the text to produce something entirely so-so.
Before explaining what, exactly, is wrong with the remake, we ought to return to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, which a contemporary reviewer for the New York Times accurately called a “firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel,” praising it as “an altogether brilliant film, haunting, suspenseful, handsome and handsomely played,” complete with a “facile and penetrating directorial style.” The reviewer complimented Olivier’s superb and “brooding Maxim de Winter,” noting that while “Miss du Maurier never really convinced me anyone could behave quite as the second Mrs. de Winter behaved and still be sweet, modest, attractive and alive . . . Miss Fontaine does it — and does it not simply with her eyes, her mouth, her hands and her words but with her spine.” In the Netflix remake, Lily James’s spine is little in evidence, and her performance not in the least bit affecting.
Though it may be rude to point out, James, who is in her early 30s, is ten years too old for the part. Ordinarily, it might be petty to dwell on such a detail, except that Mrs. de Winter’s age is hugely important in the book. We learn that the young narrator had lost her father, whom she adored, the implication being that her much older husband is in some way filling this psychological void. Hitchcock captures this perfectly. At breakfast one morning, Maxim (Olivier) tells the heroine (Fontaine), “Eat up like a good girl,” at which she glows madly (and desperately in need of a therapist). In a more impatient outburst, while the couple are out driving, he tells her to “stop biting your nails,” at which she cries and says, “I wish I was a woman of 36, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.” To this, Maxim gives a scornful laugh, saying, “You wouldn’t be here with me if you were.”
In the novel, as in Hitchcock’s version, the heroine’s inexperience and innocence are clear to the reader/audience and other characters alike. The story is told as a flashback from the perspective of a woman who is aware of how unprepared for life’s dramas she once was. (The novel begins, in one of literature’s famous opening lines, “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”) Mrs. Van Hopper, her employer at the time she met Maxim, tells her off for having developed a “schoolgirl crush.” Later, when learning of their intention to marry right away, Mrs. Van Hopper asks, “Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?,” obviously referring to sex, and our heroine, a blushing virgin, replies, “I don’t know what you mean.” In the Netflix version, the same scene is rendered ridiculous, given that we have just seen the couple go at it on a beach against plinky-plonky guitar music, the sort you find in a massage room at a hotel spa. Clint Mansell’s score, while we’re on the subject, is wholly nondescript and quite embarrassingly so when compared with Franz Waxman’s for the original film, in which sudden changes in tempo, tone, and instrumentation serve to accentuate everything from the vocal inflections to the brow-furrowing of the actors.
James is not the only person who is badly cast. While in Hitchcock’s version, Olivier, with a streak of gray hair, comfortably passes for 42, the age of his character, in Wheatley’s version the 34-year-old actor Armie Hammer looks only slightly older than James. When he speaks of “your young life,” it makes no sense. In Hitchcock’s version, Olivier’s starkly unromantic and unsentimental delivery of the line “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” shouted at Fontaine from another room, is chilling; the same line, delivered by Hammer, is underwhelming. (Interestingly, if appallingly, it is reported that, off camera, Olivier was just as cruel and unkind to Fontaine, having preferred his then wife Vivien Leigh for the part. Hitchcock is said to have capitalized on this tense dynamic by telling Fontaine, who was then making her debut, that no one on set liked her, which naturally made her even more nervous and shy.)
The new movie is irritating in other ways as well. When Lily James’s Mrs. de Winter suggests ordering some nice lacy lingerie from London, she seems like a dense bimbo, not the innocent bride who may or may not have yet consummated her marriage. In a critical plot point meant to convey the young bride’s insecurity and the power play between her and Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. de Winter knocks over and breaks a figurine, then tries to hide the evidence. In this scene, James comes across as merely clumsy, and not in an endearing way. When, at the end, James’s Mrs. de Winter proclaims, “I know the woman I am now,” we, the audience, nearly cry out in frustration, “Well, we don’t!”
The one saving grace, other than the inarguably pretty costumes and scenery, is Kristin Scott Thomas’s Mrs. Danvers, played as suitably cruel and cold. But even here, Wheatley overdoes the ending, an act of vandalism that is the cinematic equivalent of spraying a subtle portrait with fake blood. Unlike Hitchcock, who was forced to depart from du Maurier’s ending in order to conform to the Motion Picture Production Code, Wheatley has no such excuse.