Review by C.J. Bunce
A year after he directed an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Alfred Hitchcock would direct his adaptation of an even more memorable du Maurier novel, Rebecca. His 1940 film would be the only Hitchcock film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Rebecca, a remake, premieres this week on Netflix. For its fall releases the popular streaming studio nicely split up the male leads of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., putting Henry Cavill in Enola Holmes and Armie Hammer in Rebecca, even using the same mansion for both films. For Rebecca, Netflix plucked ex-cast members from Mr. Selfridge and some other genre favorites of British TV. So how does the new Rebecca compare to Hitchcock’s masterpiece?
It will come as no surprise that this new adaptation of du Maurier’s novel is not the stuff of Alfred Hitchcock. But relatively unknown director Ben Wheatley (Doctor Who, Free Fire) brings to the 21st century a fine interpretation of the novel with little updating (a good thing). Wheatley highlights his stars and showcases several favorite character actors of anglophiles everywhere. Gone is the ever mousy creation of Joan Fontaine, who never quite stepped into the shoes of Mrs. de Winter even at the end of Hitchcock’s film. The more versatile Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Baby Driver) embodies a far more human, more layered, and maybe more endearing heroine here, and grows to fill Rebecca’s shoes this time around. Likewise, Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Lone Ranger) creates a persona more interesting than Lawrence Olivier’s stiff-as-a-board Maxim de Winter, but not by much, as the character is one of fiction’s more thin, hollow characters to begin with. And James and Hammer have far more chemistry than Fontaine and Olivier.
But that black and white, truly Gothic, almost monster movie horror feel of the original must be difficult to re-create, as is that feeling throughout Hitchcock’s film that Rebecca was ever-present, haunting the new Mrs. de Winter every step of the way. The new film is less Gothic and more suspense-thriller, giving its couple the chance to develop a romance–and it works at that level. Without the striking camera angles of George Barnes, who won his only Oscar for Hitchcock’s Rebecca, we also don’t quite find the Mrs. Danvers of Kristin Scott Thomas (Mission: Impossible, The English Patient, Tomb Raider, Gosford Park) as chilling and scary. But cinematographer Laurie Rose (Freaky, Overlord, Fleabag) has his moments, as in a haunting, spinning, masquerade ball sequence, sweeping vistas of Manderley and its nearby cliffs, and several off-center, low-angle shots that make the viewer feel like a voyeur lurking in the corners of a slightly off-kilter Downton Abbey.
As for the supporting performances, Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes, The Bank Job) is a joy as Maxim’s sister, Tom Goodman-Hill (Humans, Mr. Selfridge) makes for a good confidante for Mrs. de Winter as Maxim’s property master, and Sam Riley (Maleficent) resurrects his more off-putting side opposite Lily James from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for Rebecca’s sleazy cousin. Unfortunately Bill Paterson (Shetland, Doctor Who) gets only a small part as a doctor, and Ann Dowd (Quarry, The X-Files) is not quite persnickety enough for Mrs. Van Hopper.
It’s not Hitchcock, but it’s a fine effort, faithful to du Maurier’s novel, and it will be fun for fans of James and Hammer and anglophiles everywhere. Look for Rebecca exclusively on Netflix now.