Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas
‘A Satisfactory Remake’
It is not easy to remake a renowned Hitchcock classic on the big-screen. Widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock’s films are considered masterworks today. In order to craft a successful Hitchcock remake, filmmakers often have to replicate the stories, characters and sequences of the original film. However, at the same time, a remake must stand on its own rather than be an imitation of the original. Put simply, some classics are so admired by movie-goers that they are better left untouched. After all, flawless masterpieces are not intended to be remade. Consequently, it is rare to come across effective remakes of Hitchcock’s films.
Unfortunately, this sums up the case with Ben Wheatley’s latest film “Rebecca”. An ambitious, gripping and suspenseful remake, it offers irresistible entertainment. However, it pales in comparison to the superior Hitchcock iteration. With his ninth feature, director Ben Wheatley has crafted a passable adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous novel. Packed with spellbinding visuals, gorgeous production values and fine performances, it is an adequate adaptation. Although “Rebecca” is undeniably entertaining, ultimately it is not a flawless film. Its storytelling is formulaic, and lacks the compelling character development of its predecessor. Nonetheless, it offers old-fashioned entertainment that will satisfy fans of gothic thrillers.
Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s legendary novel, “Rebecca” tells the story of a newlywed woman that is haunted by her husband’s deceased mistress. Lily James stars in the leading role as Mrs. de Winter, a lady companion that works for a disdainful dame in Monte Carlo. However, her life forever changes when she falls in love with the widowed Englishman Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). As Mrs. de Winter accompanies her husband to his mansion estate Manderley, she uncovers the truth about his late wife Rebecca.
Writer/director Ben Wheatley is a newcomer to Hitchcock remakes. Wheatley is an English filmmaker that is best known for his mind-bending psychological thrillers (ex. 2011’s “Kill List”). “Rebecca”, however, marks his first literary adaptation and foray into the legendary literature of Daphne Du Maurier. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to reimagine a celebrated piece of literature on the big-screen, but he pulls it off successfully. Using spellbinding cinematography, Wheatley draws viewers into the world of a woman that is haunted by the ghostly spirit of her husband’s previous wife. From captivating close-ups to breathtaking establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Laurie Rose, Wheatley creates an exquisite film in which each frame is a feast for the eyes. Wheatley excels at immersing viewers into the romantic affair between passionate lovers, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.
If stories of romantic affairs do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Rebecca”. To give credit where its due, the film is undeniably well-made and worth watching for its gorgeous production design. The production sets, scenic locations and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive cinematic experience. Assisted by production designer Sarah Greenwood, Wheatley successfully recreates the glamorous mansion of the previous film. For instance, the mansion estate of Manderley plays an essential role in the movie. Whether it is the anxiety-provoking spiraling staircases or darkly-lit corridors, the meticulously designed mansion effectively brings out the supernatural presence of Rebecca. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Clint Mansell’s classical score is highly effective. It gives the film an eerie and ominous atmosphere. Through phenomenal production values, Wheatley keeps viewers engrossed in the gothic world of Rebecca.
Despite its dazzling production design, however, it’s a pity that “Rebecca” finds little time to tell an engaging story. Jane Goldman’s screenplay is poorly written, and struggles to create a compelling love story. Whereas the Hitchcock iteration took its time to develop the central romantic relationship, this rendition quickly summarizes it during its rushed first-half. Furthermore, the main characters are hardly developed. For example, we’re barely given strong reasons to care about Maxim de Winter beyond his handsome looks and wealthy status. Wheatley dedicates all of his attention to the visuals, with little regard for telling an engrossing story. It’s a misguided approach that leaves viewers fatigued rather than fully invested in the gothic world of Rebecca. Literary adaptations thrive based on the quality of their storytelling, and in this regard “Rebecca” falls short of expectations.
Thankfully, though, the decent performances from the cast keep this remake from falling apart. In an exceptional ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine.
Lily James delivers one of the finest performances of her career as Mrs. de Winter. Following her breakthrough turn in “Downton Abbey”, James has proven to be an effervescent actress with a knack for playing upper-class aristocrats. With “Rebecca”, however, she takes on her most demanding role to date. It is not easy to portray an iconic literary character. However, James pulls it off effortlessly. With alluring expressions, she conveys the curiosity, naivety and obsession of a woman that is seeking the truth about her husband’s previous wife. It’s a sensational performance that proves to be a rare highlight of the movie.
Armie Hammer is competent in the role of a wealthy aristocrat with a mysterious past. Despite his immense talent, Hammer is slightly miscast in a role that requires greater range than he possesses. As Maxim de Winter, Hammer struggles to do justice to the iconic character originally portrayed by Laurence Olivier. Hammer excels at playing a smitten lover, but is less convincing as a tormented husband grieving the loss of his wife. To be fair, it isn’t entirely Hammer’s fault as he isn’t given strong material to work with. Still, it’s a strong performance from one of the most underrated actors working today.
The last, most unforgettable standout in the cast is Kristin Scott Thomas. As the sinister housekeeper of Manderley Mrs. Danvers, she infuses humanity into the villainous character.
On a final note, it is worth mentioning that “Rebecca” may not please fans of the source material. The film suffers from a melodramatic conclusion that deviates considerably from the source material. After building suspenseful intrigue for two hours, Wheatley chooses to end the movie on an anti-climactic note. Wheatley’s decision to reimagine the ending of the classic is bold and unexpected, but it doesn’t entirely work. It’s a tonally inconsistent finale that overwhelms viewers with its heavy-handed love-conquers-all message. Consequently, it isn’t entirely successful at bringing the film to a satisfying conclusion. Due to its drastically altered conclusion, “Rebecca” is one of those movies that may not appeal towards fans of the source material.
In the end, “Rebecca” is a satisfactory Hitchcock remake that does little to justify its inconsequential existence. An entertaining but unnecessary adaptation, it is overshadowed by the legacy of its flawless predecessor. Like the shadow of Rebecca that haunts the Manderley household, this remake is cursed by following the classic made by one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.