The more we get into the 21st century, the stranger the affectations of storytelling in the early 20th century gets. Things that were commonplace — or at least common knowledge — during those times now seem stodgy and incomprehensible. So it’s one thing to view a movie made within that time period, understanding that its characters are a relic of when it was produced, and quite another for that type of film to be reproduced in 2020.
That’s just one of the challenges facing the new version of Rebecca, based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. The other is that it is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, which won the Best Picture Oscar that year, the only time a Hitchcock film was given the industry’s top prize. When the bar is near universal acclaim, you know you have a steep hill to climb.
The main character of the film is not the titular Rebecca, but rather an unnamed woman (Lily James) who starts off as a lowly assistant to a wealthy woman on vacation in France. She catches the eye of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), and the two embark on a whirlwind romance that culminates in them getting married and moving back to de Winter’s estate named Manderley.
Once there, however, it becomes clear that the memory of de Winter’s former wife, Rebecca, who died in a tragic accident a year prior, remains very much intact. Numerous items emblazoned with her first initial are located throughout the house, and Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who was close with Rebecca and continues to run the house, undermines the new Mrs. de Winter’s authority at every turn.
Written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, and directed by Ben Wheatley, the film practically bathes in the upper crust society most of its characters inhabit. Since many of them are detestable at worst or standoffish at best, the filmmakers don’t appear to be endorsing the lifestyle, but neither do they overly critique it. There’s also nothing original about how it’s portrayed, and the scenes showing the rich enjoying being rich could be from any similar film from the past 80 years.
Thanks to the performances of James and especially Thomas, the story is not undone by its stuffiness. The all-encompassing presence of Rebecca in the house would be stifling for anybody, much less the person who’s trying to take her place. Until the final act, both women do a stellar job at demonstrating their characters’ mutual resentment, and the tension is palpable.
Less successful is Hammer, who’s simply not given much to do. He has a certain type of handsomeness that fits a part like this well, but other than that and being vaguely charming, he’s unconvincing. And when the ending comes around, he becomes even less so, and the script does him no favors.
Making a period film like Rebecca in the modern age requires a deft touch, and while the story holds up, few other elements do. In the end, viewers may feel like the new Mrs. de Winter and want to get away from Manderley in any way possible.
Rebecca premieres exclusively on Netflix on October 21.