In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock wowed audiences with his first Hollywood movie, “Rebecca.” Starring the era’s biggest name, Sir Laurence Olivier, and filled with the signature Hitchcockian thrills that audiences know and love, the film was an instant success. The result was 11 Oscar nominations and two wins in 1941, including Best Picture.
Many film purists were upset when the remake was announced, and even more eyebrows were raised when it was announced the 2020 version would go straight to Netflix. But those naysayers needn’t worry too much.
There aren’t many working directors today capable of touching Hitchcock’s brilliant ability to set tone and atmosphere in film. The legendary auteur had a unique gift when it came to creating tension, and it has rarely ever been duplicated. Even the sequels and remakes of his work have left much to be desired.
Enter Ben Wheatley, an Essex native like Hitchcock, known mostly for his work in independent horror and offbeat dark comedies. The decision to choose Wheatley for a project like this was immediately exciting, considering “Rebecca” deals with trauma, suicide, mystery and murder. Seems like a perfect match for Wheatley in my estimation.
“Rebecca” is about a young woman (Lily James), naïve to the ways of the wealthy elites in England, who works as a paid companion to the wealthy and very obnoxious Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). While traveling with Van Hopper in glamorous 1930’s Monte Carlo, the whole hotel begins buzzing due to the arrival of the dashing and recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). His wealth precedes him, thanks to a family fortune passed down from generation to generation which also includes the sprawling Manderley estate.
The shy young woman catches the eye of the mysterious Maxim and the two begin a whirlwind romance over the course of a week, culminating with a marriage proposal. The newly minted Mrs. de Winter returns home with Maxim to Manderley where she finds a house full of secrets and hidden agendas.
As she tries to find a role in the house, she must keep up with the staff and navigate around the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played by a wickedly good Kristin Scott Thomas. Danvers is particularly cold to the new Mrs. de Winter as she remains hell-bent on preserving the memory of Mr. de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca. Slowly, the mystery of Maxim’s first wife’s death begins to nag at the newlywed, and a certain “haunted house” element comes into play. It’s not a spooky or scary thing, but the memory of Rebecca is so vivid it feels as though she never left.
This is where Wheatley’s vision of the film shines. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name, this incarnation borrows more from the book, but there is still plenty of love and respect given to the original film. Whereas Hitchcock’s classic came in black and white, the vivid colors of the sweeping English coast and Manderley this time around bring a different medium to explore in this moody gothic love story.
Wheatley leaves his own mark and leans into the darker aspects of the story, including a great scene during the infamous costume party that goes full-on horror film with chanting and red lights. The nightmarish visions and outbursts of rage have more of an edge to them, which elevates the stakes and makes the danger and mystery more compelling. There is no way to duplicate Hitchcock, and Wheatley knows that, making a great choice to do his own thing and bringing his gifts as a director to the material rather than falling into the trappings of remaking a classic.
Not without its problems, the story is supposed to be a gothic romance, but the sharpness of the colors and the set design are a bit brighter than the story would suggest. While there is some great acting – Kristin Scott Thomas standing out – there are some sketchy accents at best. Looking at you, Armie. James and Hammer work well together, and as the plot thickens and tensions rise, the acting does, too. Unfortunately, the last half hour is bogged down by too much exposition and enough courtroom drama to make it feel like it may never end.
If you’re a fan of the original film, you won’t be disappointed. “Rebecca” is a worthy companion. If the trailer scared you away or you simply couldn’t bring yourself to besmirch the name of Hitchcock, I understand – but this turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.