Movies

Netflix’s New Rebecca Misses What Made Its Predecessors Great

Ben Wheatley’s movie adaptation trades Freudianism for feminism and loses.

Armie Hammer is seen putting his hand around Lily James' neck in a mirror, in a still from Rebecca.
Lily James as Mrs. de Winter and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. Kerry Brown/Netflix

To read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is to succumb to a series of moods. The novel is plotted with expert efficiency. You can’t remove any part of it without the whole tumbling to pieces, but it also doesn’t exactly add up. By the end of the book, the reader finds herself rooting for the opposite of what readers usually want to see—the truth coming out. But the logic of Rebecca is a dream logic, a logic of overheated imagination, the logic, as du Maurier herself always held, of jealousy.

Ben Wheatley’s new film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel is a bit of a second Mrs. de Winter. For the uninitiated, let me explain: Rebecca is narrated by a young woman whose given name is never mentioned. A gawky and naïve paid lady’s companion, she meets the rich, older widower Maxim de Winter in 1930s Monte Carlo, where the pair fall in love and marry. He brings her back to his family house, Manderley, a famous old stately home on the coast of Cornwall. There, the second Mrs. de Winter quickly becomes obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter, the Rebecca of the novel’s title. Manderley’s housekeeper, the sinister Mrs. Danvers, stokes her insecurity by pointing out how ill-equipped the newcomer is to running a large household; rhapsodizing about the beauty, sophistication, and wit of the dead Rebecca; and insisting that Maxim is still in love with his first wife.

Like du Maurier’s narrator, Wheatley’s film also has an illustrious predecessor: the Oscar-winning 1940 version of Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. De Winter and Laurence Olivier as Maxim. Hitchcock made only a few key changes to the novel, one of which was casting Judith Anderson, who was then in her early 40s, as Mrs. Danvers. In the novel, she’s described as at least a decade older, and her attachment to Rebecca de Winter has a fierce, maternal quality. Anderson infused the housekeeper’s deranged devotion with a homoeroticism that ratchets up the feverish Gothic atmosphere at Manderley and alludes to du Maurier’s own bisexuality. It’s a magnificent adaptation, in no small part because Fontaine and Olivier were perfectly cast: she, lovely, meek and fragile; he, worldly, suave, and self-contained.

That’s a tough act to follow, and why Wheatley chose to do so is a bigger mystery than any plot point in Rebecca. In Lily James and Armie Hammer, he has cast leads whose performances are dwarfed by Fontaine’s and Olivier’s. James, pillow-lipped and constitutionally ebullient, never manages to play a convincing mouse, and Hammer signifies his savoir faire by smoking cigarettes and dispensing clipped orders to underlings. He is far too callow and young—less than three years older than James—to suggest a tragic past. Granted, Maxim’s secrets are not the sort of thing likely to generate as much sympathy now as they did nearly a century ago, and even back then, du Maurier had to deploy all her finesse to preserve his status as a hero. In the fugue state the novel induces, this works, but Hammer clearly doesn’t know what to do with the character’s contradiction. The screenplay (by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse) gives him nothing to work with. His Maxim is a cipher, the trophy in a battle among three women, one of them dead.

Any version of Rebecca is only as good as its Mrs. Danvers, and in this one, Kristin Scott Thomas plays her as a coldblooded monster, without the intensity Anderson brought to the part. Repeatedly shot glaring at James from across marble-floored rooms or lurking in shadowy stairwells, Thomas is filmed in chalky makeup that resembles stone dust, as if she were a gargoyle pulled down from a parapet to manage the household. She’s less a woman fixated on the glamorous lady she regarded as her only friend than the hostile spirit of the house itself. In one (possibly hallucinatory) scene, she levels obliterating insults at her new mistress—“You and I both know that you are nothing. You’re worthless. You’re not worthy of him. Not worthy of this house”—sounding like the personification of one of those “inner critics” that self-help manuals promise to teach us to silence. It’s a performance that makes gestures toward camp but lacks the passion to get all the way there.

Wheatley and the screenwriters have chosen to frame Rebecca as a sort of coming-of-age story. The second Mrs. de Winter is flailing miserably in her attempts to replace Rebecca, until Maxim is endangered. Suddenly, she’s transformed from a gauche, stammering naïf into a purposeful warrior conversant with the criminal justice system and capable of public outbursts, crafty lies, and daring enterprises—all for the sake of saving him. What transforms her is the power of love, a formulation du Maurier would have rejected. It perplexed the author that Rebecca was marketed by her publisher as a love story; she viewed it as very dark, and all of its characters as eaten alive by the green-eyed monster.

The film’s last lines, so different from the wistful closing paragraph of the novel, suggest that it is the second Mrs. de Winter’s passion for Maxim that transforms her into a person nearly as ruthless as Rebecca herself—that is, a full adult. This move redeems the character somewhat from her failure to live up to what modern audiences regard as a laudably strong woman. It also saucily dodges the question of whether Maxim is worth saving. But it saps the story of some of the Oedipal (or should I say, Electral) undercurrents that give the novel its dreamy potency—the child’s fantasy of winning the father away from a malevolent and devouring maternal rival, not just Rebecca, but Manderley and Mrs. Danvers. There’s no point in getting Daddy all to yourself if you have to turn into Mommy to do it.

Let’s face it: There’s nothing psychologically healthy about Rebecca. Its narrator is frustratingly passive, and her beloved is … well, not all that he should be. But it casts a spell few readers have been able to resist. Its Freudian undercurrents are a veritable riptide. Glossy, handsomely mounted, with ample footage of mist-swathed Cornish cliffs, this adaptation is all still waters and no depth.