“We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic—now mercifully stilled, thank God—might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion as it had before.” — Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
That’s the essence of Daphne Du Maurier’s book, a book which has never gone out of print, speaking to its cross-generational appeal.The past lives around us. Memories “stir.” The world is in a state of “furtive unrest,” it’s full of ghosts making demands on the living, the dead exacting revenge from beyond the grave. When the unnamed narrator of marries the widower Maxim de Winter, she barely knows anything about him. Swept away by this dazzling mysterious man, the naive young woman goes back with him to the family manor, a Gothic monstrosity called “Manderley.” There, she finds herself in a world dominated by the dead Mrs. de Winter, the mythical “Rebecca,” whose presence is still felt, in monogrammed pillows, engraved hair-brushes, not to mention the memories of everyone, who all agree she was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. The new Mrs. de Winter fears she will never measure up. Her fears are justified.
Rebecca has been adapted for film (and radio, and theatre) countless times, the most famous one, of course, being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as Mrs. De Winter, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers (the housekeeper who remains loyal to the dead Rebecca). Orson Welles beat everyone to the punch, though, adapting the best-selling book for radio the year it was published; he peppered the cast with Mercury Theatre regulars. Along with numerous adaptations for American television, the BBC produced an excellent mini-series version. The book’s reach is global. There have been a couple of Bollywood films inspired by Rebecca, for example. As much as I love the 1940 version, there’s no reason it should be considered so definitive no one should dare touch it. But the new adaptation for Netflix, directed by Ben Wheatley, with a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, highlights the strengths of the 1940 version, and underlines its own lack, in terms of style, atmosphere, and general understanding of the story itself.
The novel starts as a dream with the famous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This adaptation keeps that structure before leaping to Monte Carlo where a young woman (Lily James) suffers under the control of her employer, a ghoulish social climber named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). While it takes place explicitly in 1935, the Great Depression is nowhere in existence. This is a glittering Jazz Age world, all champagne-fizzy and golden-lit, rich people in linens, swing-y jazz in the background. One morning, the glamorous Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) rescues our heroine from social embarrassment, and, captivated by her, invites her out for a drive. The whispered gossip is Maxim is still grieving the death of his beloved wife Rebecca. After a quick romance, including soft-core sex on the beach, he proposes marriage and swoops her back to Manderley.
The second Kristin Scott Thomas, as Mrs. Danvers, her eyes as cold and dark as black ice, slithers across the room to meet the new lady of the house, she establishes the proper style for this feverish material. Her face is powdered white, and her lipstick makes of her mouth a dark slash. It’s difficult to eradicate the memory of Judith Anderson’s terrifying and eroticized performance (even with the Production Code, the 1940 film is more explicit about the nature of Mrs. Danvers’ devotion to Rebecca than this updated version). But still, when Thomas arrives she makes the Monte Carlo sequence seem a prologue. As the new Mrs. de Winter wanders through her new home, she notices the letter “R” literally everywhere. Everyone she meets, including Rebecca’s cousin (Sam Riley), who has been banned from the house for mysterious reasons, is still haunted by her memory. Mrs. De Winter is cowed by the this “ghost,” jealous, confused, and hurt by Maxim’s transformation from romantic playboy funboy to gloomy-puss simmering with anger and secrets.
Lily James brings a refreshing straightforwardness to the role in the second half, as the character takes the reins of the situation, but has a difficult time convincing us in the first half that she is susceptible, cowed, in thrall. She’s too self-assured, too forthright. Fontaine somehow made it clear that this was the character’s first experience with a man, in every sense of the word. Sexual jealousy is a huge part of Du Maurier’s book: how awful would it be to know you didn’t measure up in the sack to a dead woman? Even a scene where the new Mrs. de Winter finds Rebecca’s catalog of sexy lingerie hidden in a drawer is not enough to establish the nightmarish quality of that arc. Is Rebecca there in the bed with the newlyweds, laughing at the clumsy inexperience of Maxim’s new bride? There are a couple of very effective hallucinatory sequences where the new Mrs. de Winter has nightmares, vines erupting from the floor of the great hall, sucking her down into their clutches, or a hallucinatory moment where the attendees of a masquerade loom at her, chanting gleefully, “REBECCA. REBECCA.” That’s more like it, that’s the spirit. Without it, it’s hard to even perceive what is happening.
Treating Rebecca as a traditional period piece romance-melodrama doesn’t go at all far enough. Clint Mansell’s score more often than not has nothing to do with what’s onscreen. (I have loved his work before, particular his scores for “Moon” and “Black Swan,” so this misstep is an anomaly.) When Maxim opens up for the first time about his tragic past, a gentle piano and strings theme plays underneath the scene, completely unconnected to the what’s being said. The music creates a slightly nostalgic mood, slightly sad, slightly melancholy. There should be nothing “slightly” about that important scene. Armie Hammer is on sure ground in the first half, where he has to be charming, breezily rich, romantic, but then seems at sea in the second half, where he has to face the horror of the real circumstances of Rebecca’s death. Nobody has a firm grasp on what exactly they are supposed to be playing. There’s not a clear enough sense of collective suppression, desires unspoken, sexual/psychological torment so intense it leads to madness. Thomas brings it, but she seems like she’s in a different movie.
When I interviewed Guillermo del Toro onstage at Ebertfest, following the screening of “Crimson Peak,” he spoke with frustration about how his film was marketed as a horror movie, a category error which led to confused audiences who wondered where the horror was. “Crimson Peak” was partially inspired by “Rebecca”—if you’re familiar with the story you would clock it immediately. Del Toro clarified that the film is not horror but “Gothic romance.” He reiterated it over and over. He discussed the very specific qualities of Gothic romance (all of which he captured in “Crimson Peak,” a film I reviewed for this site). Gothic romance is out of style now, so much so that audiences may not even recognize it as a genre. But Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Phantom of the Opera, Coleridge’s “Christable”: all qualify. As does Rebecca, one of the high watermarks of the Gothic romance genre.
The emotions in Gothic romance are fever-pitched. This new “Rebecca” is just too damn sane.
Now playing in select theaters; available on Netflix on October 21.