Released 2020. Director: Ben Wheatley
“LAST NIGHT I DREAMT I WENT TO MANDERLEY AGAIN.” WITH THAT FAMOUS OPENING LINE, a new Rebecca is reborn. Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, and first directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the 1940 version of Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture. Eighty years later, a remake has surfaced and I’m going to be blunt right at the start and say it doesn’t measure up in any way.
What can I say about it? Well, there’s colour. And I don’t mean it as an improvement. The original was shot in black-and-white, which greatly enhanced the pervading dark mood and suspicious atmosphere. The grand, imposing and secluded mansion christened Manderley houses many secrets, engenders fear in its new mistress, and definitely suggests a spectral presence of its former mistress. Colour adds nothing to the essence of this Gothic romance.
It is 1935 and the newly married Mrs De Winter (Lily James) arrives at Manderley after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo where she met the urbane and affluent widower Maxim De Winter. From a lowly dogsbody to the snobbish Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), she leaps over the social strata and becomes a lady of high society.
Unfamiliar and unaccustomed to her new lifestyle, Mrs De Winter virtually stumbles around her luxurious new home and though surrounded by a small army of servants, finds no help or understanding. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) in particular, is alternately hostile and passive aggressive.
What really happened to the previous Mrs De Winter? Is there more to the story she drowned off the coast? Why does Mrs Danvers keep a room for her as if she still lives in the house? Why does her husband never speak about his dead wife? She has so many questions.
Mrs De Winter, who is never given a first name, lives in the shadow of the woman whose name is on everybody’s lips. Though she’s dead, Rebecca’s legacy and memories is suffocating her naïve and trusting replacement. The new Mrs De Winter fumbles to establish herself in the household and not a moment too soon the movie abandons any pretense at Gothic romance and charges down the twisty path of a detective mystery.
One could argue that Lily James is suited to her role as a hapless outsider because her acting often requires a bit of convincing. Or perhaps she’s overwhelmed having to fill the shoes left by Joan Fontaine in the original. Armie Hammer sets his emotional register on the wrong dial, looking uncomfortable and out of place which he mistakes for impassiveness to hide some unspeakable pain. Laurence Olivier would have a tip or two to dispense.
The most striking character in the original version is really Mrs Danvers played to a shuddery perfection by Judith Anderson, who always appears to glide and float across the floor on a sinister mission. Kristin Scott Thomas breaks the spell when her heels keep click-clacking on the tiled floor, scattering any measure of foreboding or dread her character is supposed to cast. Apart from that one misstep (more the fault of directing than anything else), Thomas manages to project her barely disguised disapproval and contempt at her new boss-lady with enough sting to stand above her co-stars.
At the heart of this unholy tussle is a battle between three women, one in absentia. For the story to work it has to be set in this era. An update to the 21st century would require a re-characterisation of the relationships and the social dynamics would be remarkably different. Had it gone off the basic premise and reworked the occupants of Manderley through a new lens, perhaps it might have offered a contemporary examination of social status, marriage, psychosexual tension and possessiveness.
The fate of Mrs Danvers is different in this version, which is more fitting considering the final resting place of “My Rebecca,” as Mrs Danvers calls her, suggesting there’s more to a mistress/servant relationship.
Apart from Kristin Scott Thomas putting up an appropriately chilly portrayal, there is little in terms of ambition on display throughout, not in the crafting of mood or tweaking of the story. Not unless you consider mangling the conclusion some kind of aspirational rewrite.
Rebecca is fundamentally about loss. The ruins of the grand mansion represent a past that’s forever gone. The narrator’s dream of returning to Manderley is a yearning for what she was promised but denied ultimately, haunted by the ghosts of jealousy and feelings of inferiority.
The new and unequivocally silly epilogue showing the couple basking in conjugal bliss in sunny Cairo totally negates Du Murier’s dark vision. This upbeat and celebratory ending goes against the doomed ideals and expressions in a tale about bitter and toxic relationships. Simply drawing back the curtains and letting the sun in saying happily-ever-after is an insult to the book and the cinematic predecessor. Rebecca must be turning in her grave.
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