Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
There are two ghosts that haunt director Ben Wheatley’s REBECCA: that of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrilling masterwork, and also author Daphne du Maurier’s time-honored, gothic novel which this adaptation closely follows. Yet, despite those shadows looming large, his immersive cinematic retelling remains strikingly distinct, even furthering the source material’s enduring legacy. With terrific performances from its leading trio, uniquely nuanced genre-smashing ideology, rapturous production design and refined cinematography, the picture is an engrossing escape worth swooning over.
After a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo by wealthy widow Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) leads to marriage, a friendly, naive Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) arrives at his family’s sprawling estate. Manderley is the stuff of dreams – nightmares, as it turns out. The remote castle, an oppressive, imposing personality unto itself, sits on massive, lush grounds near England’s oceanside. The house is kept in pristine order thanks to Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who served as the housekeeper and devoted confidante to the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Rebecca died a year prior under mysterious circumstances and now her legacy haunts the place. Mrs. Danvers prefers to keep Rebecca’s presence alive, perfectly preserving not only her fancy bedroom quarters, but also her traditions and preferences. These, of course, undermine the new wife’s wants and soon the house and housekeeper begin their psychological torture of the new bride.
From the jump, Wheatley and company distinguish their film from Hitchcock’s adaptation. Rather than focusing solely on everything inside the property, like the gaslighting, grief and mental anguish experienced and exacerbated by all three of the lead characters, this refurbished model takes its time bookending the psychological twists and turns with a love story and climactic courtroom procedural. Greater attention is paid by Wheatley and screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse to the second Mrs. de Winter’s maturing agency. They hone a finer, ferociously feminist point on sentiments surrounding her station in life – going from staff, working as a ladies companion, to a married society woman, whose sole purpose is to serve her husband’s needs. She never even has her own name separate from her husband’s. On top of that, as the second wife, she’s overshadowed by the titular (named) first wife.
Further reflection on the notion of identity is uncovered within a few other aspects. Her evolution can be tracked through Julian Day’s wardrobe, starting with Maxim’s bright marigold suit (symbolizing the trophy she believes she’s receiving) and ending on her sporting her own golden boucle suit where she’s her own prize. Thematic ties to the narrative echo in the production design’s use of mirror motif symbolism. For the unseen, though ominously felt, ghost-like character of Rebecca, the filmmakers assign another identity through sound design, manifesting her presence in seaside sounds and belabored sighs.
James, Hammer and Thomas turn in tremendous performances. Hammer is every inch the suave, magnetic charmer when called to be, while also embodying the duality of Maxim’s personality, showcasing his sorrowful facets. James is incandescent and luminous. Thomas adds a sympathetic streak to her sinister, slippery character’s Sapphic admiration of her former charge. Her tightly constrained, dark suits are an extension of her character – a bruise on the skin of others’ relationships. Plus, cinematographer Laurie Rose’s work augments the performers’ fine work, complementing the emotional undertones through a highly-stylized, saturated color palette.
REBECCA begins streaming on Netflix on October 21.