James Clay // Film Critic
Living in the shadow of a predecessor is tricky business for any piece of art, or any human being for that matter. That’s precisely where director Ben Wheatley has a lot in common with his protagonist in the remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film REBECCA. The decadent gothic romance about a common young woman who has fallen into a lifestyle filled with aristocracy she didn’t ask for when she marries into a wealthy family only to be living in the memory of the man’s first wife.
Wheatley’s velvety version offers up a sensationalized take that looks for big moments and grand reveals in service of losing the spectral edge that makes the original hold up to this day. Perfect fodder for a late-night stream with a bottle of something bubbly, REBECCA is a massively entertaining swing at bringing out the soapier side of something that could have taken on a more ghostly identity.
The future Mrs. De Winter (Lily James) is currently working as essentially a handmaid or assistant to wealthy socialite Mrs. Van Hopper (Anne Dowd sporting a far too distracting English accent). She earns £ 90 per year with lodging that takes her to beautiful locations. It’s as unfulfilling as you can imagine. She has a minimal identity outside of her job, and Lily James does a splendid job of giving her nuance when things narratively sputter. She runs into Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer), an incredibly wealthy man who’s literally and figuratively running from the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca.
The first twenty minutes or so of the film is filled with too much exposition not to cause some form of cinematic whiplash, so buckle up and throw on the subtitles because REBECCA starts as a bumpy ride. Once the story begins to take a little shape, and Mrs. Van Hopper is out of the picture, the De Winters takes off to the legendary Manderlay estate on the South Coast of England to begin their life together.
Once they arrive and meet the head of the house, Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas doing her best version Lesley Manville in PHANTOM THREAD), it becomes clear to Mrs. De Winter that Rebecca is still a looming presence. And as far as theatrical costume dramas go, the level of intrigue is par for the course.
Wheatley shoots the massive estate in saturated colors that are atypical for Anglo-centric stories. With his vision come to life by frequent cinematographer Laurie Rose (PET SEMATARY remake), the story develops a swooping visual language that sets the scope of the terrain as a vast wasteland of secrets. What works best in REBECCA is the hyperbolic way the camera moves, how over the top the drama can be while taking itself way too seriously, and of course, the costumes.
Every dress, suit, hairstyle brings out the best in all of the on-screen talent. Shoot, costume designer Julian Day (ROCKETMAN) can make a cumber bun on a supporting character look sexy. Even though this is ostensibly a made for television movie, every dollar is up on the screen. With those colors popping, you can see Armie Hammer’s dapper mustard suit in all its glory.
The chemistry between James and Hammer works quite well as she’s playing Mrs. De Winter with a meek curiosity that uncovers the responsibility she has on her plate. While Hammer is playing a role tailor made for his over 6 foot tall, squared jaw sensibilities, he’s able to be a loving and formidable presence that’s sympathetic yet deeply problematic based on modern standards. Also, his British accent isn’t half bad either.
James, who anchors the movie with her always perplexed look, trying to live up to someone she can’t ever genuinely meet, keeps the narrative thrust propelling forward. Through minor beefs with Mrs. Danvers and the arrival of Rebecca’s cousin/gentleman caller Jack Favell (Sam Riley), it keeps the melodrama coming until the film reveals its final form in the last half hour. Wheatley is spinning a yarn we’ve seen before, but it doesn’t mean that its familiar thrills can’t keep you warm.
REBECCA isn’t exactly going to be a movie people will remember a year from now for its thrills or its commentary on toxic romances, all of that seems somewhat muted. However, sumptuous visual feasts of the ornate rooms and wardrobes that occupy Manderlay can soften the blow of a lengthy third act. This is a film for modern audiences who are immune to classic cinema, and while that’s a shame, this remake finds its veneer while keeping true to the original story.
REBECCA is now available to stream on Netflix