The classic novel already filmed by Hitchcock REBECCA has now become a Netflix drama from “High Rise” director Ben Wheatley. We’ll reveal in our review whether the costume film with Armie Hammer and Lily James is convincing.
OT: Rebecca (UK/USA 2020)
A young, somewhat naive partner (Lily James) who has repeatedly been hit by fate falls in love with the attractive and wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) in Monte Carlo. He enjoys the joy of life that she radiates, which is extremely beneficial to him after the death of his famous wife Rebecca. After a lightning wedding, the love fairy tale takes an abrupt turn: now the new Mrs. de Winter, the newlyweds feel out of place and lost in the extensive Manderley estate. She is repeatedly told that she has no place in such high society. Above all, the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) makes life difficult for Mrs. de Winter – with constant, nasty comments. And the ongoing memory of her beloved predecessor Rebecca…
Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock have something in common. Like a friendly, friendly envy of one another. Or the effect of their legacy that undermines the sense of time. Disney productions have maintained their position in culture much longer than many other films – children today still watch Disney films from the 1930s and 1940s, while many other box office hits from that time only appeal to cinephile people. Hitchcock has a similar effect on our perception. Because who would bet that Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” is now 80 years old? Many people are likely to appreciate the film at a younger age, at least at first – after all, it comes from a successful director whose influence is still felt today and who only died in 1980. So after the beginning of the “Star Wars” saga, which continues to shape popular cinema. But that’s the way it is: in pop culture, the time factor represents a piece of chewing gum. Sometimes it’s squeezed together, sometimes it stretches enormously. Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was released in 1940, nominated for 11 Oscars, winning Best Picture and Best Black-and-White Cinematography. So 80 years ago. And that alone, no matter how sacrilegious it may be for some cineastes, qualifies the horror romance with coming-of-age elements for a new film adaptation.
Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) and Maxim (Armie Hammer) get to know each other…
According to the definition of social research, two (!) generations have grown up since Hitchcock’s death alone (the Millennials and Gen Z). You can try the material again with a clear conscience – just count how many Spider-Men have crawled through the cinema in the last 20 years alone. Furthermore, as sad as it may be, the phrases “80 years old” and “in black and white” scare off many younger film-curious people. Not everything can have the full Walt Disney effect. This also means: It can’t hurt to sow the seeds of curiosity about “what the old film was like” through a Netflix film. And, to digress from film economics and cinema education: Hitchcock’s film was made under the Hays Code, which set morally strict guidelines. Seeing Daphne du Mauriers reinterpreted in the Western film scene neither as a British costume film television adaptation nor as a shy Italian TV strip, but rather by a character known for his consistent decisions, has its full artistic raison d’être and promises great appeal in advance. Once you get over your “Hitchcock touched it, now no one else is allowed to touch it” shyness.
“It can’t hurt to sow the seeds of curiosity about “what the old movie was like” through a Netflix film.”
And the dark romantic drama from “Free Fire” director Ben Wheatley partially lives up to these hopes. Just as Hitchcock created different moods through light and shadow and through magnificent or intimidating forms of decoration, Wheatley now uses color to add mood to scenes. From sunny, light-flooded, wide rooms with shimmering, bright furnishings to the monochrome, delicately furnished, but also cramped room of Manderley’s former landlady, to bright green-black-blue night sequences that could come from a horror film: the color coding of the extravagant furnishings, The expressive, decorative costumes and lighting by Wheatley’s regular cinematographer Laurie Rose (“High-Rise”, “Kill List”) give each sequence its own highly concentrated mood, while the film thanks to Wheatley’s calm direction and the subtly sinister music of Clint Mansell (“Noah”) has a black romantic, tragic and longing basic atmosphere.
What is Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) up to?
Now, free of the Hays Code, the film can approach Daphne du Maurier’s novel ending more closely. And that Wheatley, the author trio Jane Goldman (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”)Joe Shrapnel (“Jean Seberg”) and Anna Waterhouse (“Time for Legends”) and actress Kristin Scott Thomas (“Mrs. Taylor’s Singing Club”) Not making Mrs. Danvers as obviously beastly as in the Hitchcock film, and instead making the subtext of the title character’s frustrated, disappointed lover more graceful, but still leaving it stylishly in the semi-darkness, is an attractive artistic decision. Do what Hitchcock couldn’t do – but don’t indulge in “I’m going to kill myself for Netflix in 2020” excess… But unfortunately Wheatley’s “Rebecca” otherwise seems like a project that the director implemented with the handbrake on. Away from a ball intended for Lily James’ (“Cinderella”) character becomes an inferno waltz of self-hatred after an embarrassing performance, this film is frustratingly slow. On paper, the narrative pace may be close to Hitchcock’s – the plot turning points each occur at a comparable point in time. But with Hitchcock, more happened between the turning points.
“The fact that many of the supporting characters in Wheatley’s film are less dazzling and exaggerated than in Hitchcock hampers this version of ‘Rebecca’ enormously. And when the highly dramatic turning points, twists and occasional bolder staging ideas come, they stand out absurdly.”
His protagonist begins the film girlier, more blue-eyed and hopeful, so the way she is buttered down to Manderley hurts more. And it makes her work harder for the rare moments when she gets the upper hand. In Wheatley’s film, James’s somewhat bumbling but smart character begins the story almost as he ends it – she just becomes a little more skilled as the story progresses and her social status changes (which is not the point of the story). It’s monotonous and makes some moments in which Rebecca stands there helpless implausible. The situation is similar with Armie Hammer (“Nocturnal Animals”) as widower de Winter: At the beginning of the film he is a man of the world who sometimes appears slightly grim – for very brief moments. That’s how it stays, despite some revelations. The fact that many of the supporting characters in Wheatley’s film are less dazzling and exaggerated than in Hitchcock’s also hinders this “Rebecca” version enormously. And when the highly dramatic turning points, twists and occasional bolder staging ideas come, they stand out absurdly. Without them continuing to bear tonal consequences. This not only deprives the story of its actual meaning, but also allows this actually so succinct premise to just babble along.
Conclusion: Ben Wheatley’s “Rebecca” is a stylishly designed, tensely told costume romantic drama in which trace elements of the theme of obsession appear that make up the original and Hitchcock’s adaptation. These trace elements are concentrated in a few scenes and are then washed away again, instead of casting such a dominant shadow as the title character and the meaning of this plot would demand.
“Rebecca” is now available to stream on Netflix.