“Rebecca” may not necessarily be a name that sparks conversation among more modern movie and literature fans, but for those familiar with both mediums it’s the name of a novel and movie that together hold a strong legacy in entertainment. Starting off as a 1938 novel by Daphne de Maurier, the book went on to become a best-selling classic. Just two years after its original publication the book was adapted in a film of the same name by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock as the director’s first American project. It went on to earn eleven nominations at the Academy Awards eventually becoming Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winning movie. So, yeah, of course a remake was in order. The 2020 version of “Rebecca”, released to Netflix in late October, attempts to adapt the legendary source material and film for a modern audience with Ben Wheatley, the director of such obscure but perfectly passable films like “High-Rise”, “Free Fire” and the U segment of “The ABCs of Death”, at the helm. Following up a Hitchcock masterpiece is no easy feat, but with this remake the legendary filmmaker’s penchant for effective thrills is sorely missed as the new “Rebecca” fails to engage despite having a strong start and finish.
Now I will admit I never actually saw the Hitchcock “Rebecca” nor have I read the book, but I was familiar with the movie’s legacy and anyone who’s seen even a few Hitchcock films can understand his talent for thrilling storytelling. Anyways, going into the 2020 “Rebecca” I did so from a unique perspective, having little exposure beyond the simplest knowledge of the source materials and thus being able to see the new film through a more ignorant and less comparative lens. As with the prior film and book, “Rebecca” follows an unnamed woman (Lily James) who meets and eventually marries a man named Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who lost his wife Rebecca the year before. Maxim takes the new Mrs. de Winter to his mansion of Manderley where she meets the estate’s housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who, along with the rest of the staff, makes the new Mrs. de Winter’s life a living hell reminding her constantly of her inferiority when compared to Rebecca. As the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to find her place in the mansion and escape the looming shadow of Rebecca new details into the first wife’s death are unveiled as Mrs. Danvers gets more desperate to undermine the new Mrs. de Winter around every turn.
“Rebecca” is definitely an inferior version to the Hitchcock classic and I feel comfortable saying that even having not seen the previous film. Hitchcock was a master of thrills and suspense and while he is famous for many movies “Rebecca” was the only one what saw his talent earn Best Picture status. It’s safe to say then that a lackluster remake like this could never live up to such a high standard. This version of “Rebecca” is pretty boring. While it has a solid start as the first half hour draws you in to this budding romance between the unnamed protagonist and her new husband and ends on a rather speedy and engaging final half-hour where the mystery is resolved and all the pieces revealed are finally put in place, it’s the hour in between that is really hard to get into. “Rebecca” seems to do a decent job following the idea of its source materials telling us a tale of a woman who marries into a wealthy man’s life only to be shunned by the staff of her new home who all miss their previous master, Rebecca. This idea has genuine potential to be relatable and unsettling as anyone can understand the discomfort of trying to fill someone else’s shoes whether it be at a job, in a relationship or in other aspect of life. This discomfort and drama makes up the core of the film and yet it’s the most boring part of this picture.
For much of the middle hour of the movie we see the new Mrs. de Winter attempt to fit in, slowly realizing the animosity of the staff and tortured by the shadows of Rebecca’s lasting impression on the house. To her credit, star Lily James does a decent job depicting her character’s slow, emotional deterioration combining her peaceful ignorance with her insecurities to show how a delicate mind can find it harder to adapt especially in an environment where people secretly reject her. But her transformation and mental deterioration is wasted on odd subplots, lingering camera shots and attempted art artistic design that all have no real goal in mind. There’s rarely any creepiness or worthy scenes to ponder. Any subtext is watered down by the film’s clear attempt to be artsy. Instead of trying to understand moments and feel for the character, most of the time I found myself asking the film to “GET GOING ALREADY” and in a story that offers this much potential and depth you should never get so bored where you want to move things along. It doesn’t help that I genuinely felt I could hit the fast forward option (thanks Netflix) and not miss a damn thing when something actually happened.
Probably one of the most disappointing element of this movie though is the villain, the mansion’s housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. I’ve long known the Danvers character as one of the great villains in film and literature who tries to undermine the new Mrs. de Winter around every turn because of her obsession and friendship with Rebecca. In this movie she’s played by Kristin Scott Thomas who honestly doesn’t do a horrible job. In fact, like almost everyone in this movie, she’s perfectly fine making the most of the lackluster direction and writing she had to work with. She makes for a fun villain to hate, but that’s the problem. Maybe it’s different in the Hitchcock film, maybe it’s not, but in this movie I felt like there needed to be more subtlety and depth to her character. By the end of the movie I felt Danvers was meant to be this tragic villain, one that we were supposed to feel for and understand a lot better than we do, but most of the film she’s pretty one note. You know from the moment you see her that she’s determined to make the new wife’s life hell and while it’s not until later that we find out why the inability for the filmmakers to add dimension or properly balance out her tragic obsession with her personal flaws results in a forgettable villain that should have been one of the biggest stars in the entire film. What could have and should have been a memorable passive-aggressive movie villain akin to Nurse Ratched becomes simply a predictable villain who feels evil simple because they needed an antagonist to build the conflict around.
While the new version of “Rebecca” isn’t a complete failure with likable leads, some fun set design and costumes, and an engaging first and last half hour that help make it perfectly watchable, the core of the film is a boring slog plagued by a lack of purpose, energy and soul. There’s plenty of depth that could have and should have been explored with this film as the characters, narrative and even the villain offer plenty for the filmmakers to work with but it feels like they wanted to tackle all of that with no idea how they were going to do it resulting in a final product that feels like it wants to engage you but never truly does. The beginning drew me in before it lost me, and the ending tried to bring me back but by then I had already checked out. The only thing this remake really does for me is it makes me want to experience the Hitchcock original with hopes that it pulls off the idea with more interesting results. Like Mrs. de Winter with Rebecca, it feels like this movie is trying hard to live up to its predecessors but feels constantly threatened by a shadow or superiority it can’t escape and thus fails to find its own place as a result.