So, what to say about the new film of Rebecca directed by Ben Wheatley now available on Netflix? There are going to be SPOILERS in here. First off, Lily James is much too pretty but this is always the case with film versions of Rebecca, so was Joan Fontaine (in Hitchcock’s 1940 black and white version). No one is going to cast her as she is in the book which is someone plain and gauche. Secondly – oh my God, the yellow suit! Maxim that is sooooooo damn yellow, an absolute custard marvel but you’re supposed to be classy … sack your tailor, man!
Enough rambling. The film was perfectly pleasant. It’ll while away a couple of hours especially if you don’t know the book and haven’t seen the Hitchcock film. I feel mean to be picky but here goes.
If you decide to adjust the characters to modern sensibilities watch out for what it does to the narrative as a whole. Something weird has happened to the character of Maxim in this version. For a start he’s too young. There’s supposed to be a substantial age gap between the two. Maxim is a ‘father figure’ to her. He should be moody, with a vicious temper, shut down and ‘wounded’. Armie Hammer’s version is way too amiable and lacks err wounds. Making him sleep walk adds nothing. He’s called de Winter for a reason. How can he be wintery in such a sunny suit?
There’s only one point where he shows any fire and that’s when his wife comes down the staircase dressed in the same costume that Rebecca had worn to the ball. Shove Maxim into the background and his wife comes to the fore. I understand why Wheatley wants to give her more agency. His fear, I imagine, was that she’s simply too passive, too insecure, too mousy and so too unsympathetic for modern sensibilities. But he obviously made a quick list. Let’s call it the Ben’s agency list:
- have her drive. If she’s driving she has agency so there we are.
- have her attempt to sack Mrs Danvers. I feel mean about this because in my previous blog I made rather a big thing of it but when the first attempt happened I burst out laughing. I also burst out laughing when she said later, ‘Pack your bags I want you gone by …’ I can’t remember when but it was probably the morning. It usually is isn’t it?
- have her save Maxim all by herself. Oh yawn. By driving to London all by herself and finding the file that reveals Rebecca has cancer all by herself.
In this version the neutered Maxim is locked up in prison when everything goes pear-shaped at the coroner’s inquest. Now this won’t do at all. One of the main themes of Rebecca is class division. In the book and the Hitchcock film the local magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is a friend and there is no doubt that he is ON MAX’S SIDE. There is never any suggestion that he thinks Max killed his wife because he is an aristo/massive landowner and as such is morally beyond reproach. He certainly wouldn’t lock him up because then he’d never get an invite to the Manderley Ball again and his wife would divorce him. In the book Favell, a man from the wrong side of the tracks, is clear about how this works when he says to Colonel Julyan, once Max is off the hook: ‘You can dine at Manderley once a week on the strength of this and feel proud of yourself. No doubt Max will ask you to be godfather to his first child.’
What of Mrs Danvers? Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t go for the full schlocky-campy version which was rather disappointing. I didn’t find her frightening enough and the exchanges between her and the new Mrs de Winter were rather stilted.
At least in this version Maxim says he’s shot Rebecca. In the Hitchcock one it’s an accident. I suppose because the morality of the time (of any time actually) was such that someone should not be seen to have got away with murdering their wife.
There’s a very silly scene when Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin and lover) teaches her to ride. Frankly, if you want to suggest sexual loucheness you don’t need to straddle a horse just have George Saunders (in Hitchcock’s film) jump back and forth through a window and say toodle oo.
Manderley is also an important ‘character’ in the book, malign and unwelcoming to the second Mrs de Winter. I didn’t really get much of an impression of it, although at various points I expected a National Trust volunteer to spring forwards and tell us about the wall hangings.
So what did I like? I liked the murmuration, used to signify the evil presence of Rebecca about the place, and also some dark scenes in the ball. I liked Mrs Van Hopper played by Ann Dowd. And I suppose I quite liked the ending which is upbeat. In the book and Hitchcock’s film you know that they’ll never be free of Rebecca and Manderley even if one’s dead and the other is burnt to a crisp. But in these Covid days I could do with a bit of cheer and ending on an optimistic note albeit in Cairo (which, incidentally is where du Maurier wrote the book) was fine even if completely at odds with the sensibility of the Gothic genre.
Have you seen it? What did you think?