In the quieter moments of the 2020 Netflix adaptation of “Rebecca,” the chemistry between Lily James and Armie Hammer as newlyweds could set a house on fire and the malevolent spitefulness of Kristin Scott Thomas as the first wife’s bestie is pure poison. Yet those moments of cinematic fire are few. Director Ben Wheatley doesn’t know how to convey suspense, things slightly off-kilter by framing or lighting. Some of the blame must also go to the lackluster script, written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.
Yes, the famous first line is delivered, “‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” but the grays of good and bad, real and unreal in a remembered past are not.
Our unnamed heroine is in Monaco as the lady companion to a wealthy and boorish Mrs. Van Hopper. Van Hopper spots the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter first and bids the narrator to get a seat near him. She fails to get the maître d’hôtel to follow Van Hopper’s instructions and clumsily offers him a bribe, only to drop her purse and coins when attempting to offer more. Not knowing what Maxim looks like, she accepts the aid in picking up her money by a tall, handsome stranger who has been carefully observing this exchange. After warning that Maxim is a terrible bore, the man is identified by the maître d’hôtel.
Although Maxim assumes that the narrator is related to Van Hopper, that notion is quickly dispelled. The narrator is quickly identified as a servant and not one that is well appreciated. While Van Hopper attempts to ingratiate herself to Maxim, the narrator is sent up to retrieve photos, but comes back too late for Van Hopper to show Maxim. Undoubtedly, much to the relief of Maxim.
Luckily for our heroine, Van Hopper, after having an evening snark-fest, holding up the narrator as bait to her circle of unattractive, wealthy gossipy gals, wakes up the next morning ill. A doctor is called; a nurse is hired. Our young lady is free and although she attempts to eat on the terrace, she is almost turned away by the haughty maître d’hôtel. No servants allowed. Luckily, Maxim invites her to dine with him. She orders oysters and they have such a chatty good time that the staff are waiting to close up for breakfast.
Pretending to be taking tennis lessons, the narrator slips out with the gallant Maxim. And then they end up on the beach, alone and things get physical. The narrator returns to the hotel to find that the witchy Van Hopper is not only well, but well-informed. The eligible widower has been watched by Van Hopper’s coven and duly informed of the narrator’s too frequent outings. Deciding to leave the next day and catch the boat back to the US, where, she assures the narrator, there will be plenty of boys and men of her class for her to pursue. Spending the evening packing the bags, the narrator first waits downstairs and then impulsively goes up to Maxim’s room to say goodbye. Things get teary, but with this ultimatum, Maxim proposes that the narrator join him at Manderley–not as his secretary as she initially assumed, but as his wife.
Skipping over the honeymoon, we fast-forward to the couple driving to Cornwall and the grand mansion of Manderley where it becomes clear, a strict and unsmiling Mrs. Danvers rules through the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter.
James is awkwardly innocent just as required for her role, but the Monte Carlo romance is hindered by the aforementioned lack of framing and proper lighting. The results would work well as enticements to travel to the lovely Monaco or later, Cornwall (where it has been assumed Manderley is and is the expressed location for the Hitchcock version), but don’t really set up the sense of foreboding that a proper gothic novel requires. Remembering James as the lovely Rose in “Downton Abbey,” makes the matters even worse. The lighting and framing of the drama there was exquisite. Here, the light from the windows often washes out the indoor scenes without any apparent thematic reason.
Another period series, “Poldark,” was supposed to be in Cornwall. The brooding titular character and mansions and town, had more of the stormy quality one associates with gothic romances. “Poldark” is also notable because one of the central relationships is between a man and a younger woman of different classes. Oddly, in this adaptation of “Rebecca,” the narrator seems more stylish in the early scenes in Monaco. During one moment during “Rebecca” 2020, I couldn’t help but think Mrs. Danvers had a better hat than the current Mrs. de Winter.
Wheatley also used CGI for great expense but little suspense. For a moment, one might worry that this enterprise would fall into the realm of schlocky horror. In two other instances, a murmuration is shown, but it only reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock (“The Birds.”). I’m guessing these are CGI. Cornwall, where Manderley is supposed to be, is a place where you can see murmurations. Compared to the real thing, what we see in the Netflix “Rebecca” are slight.
The Oscar-winning Hitchcock version (Best Picture and Best Cinematography) begins with a voiceover that suggests a more sophisticated, confident woman than the 2020 version. Hitchcock has masterful framing and beautiful lighting. The first meeting between Maxim (Laurence Olivier) and the unnamed narrator (Joan Fontaine) does show Maxim as witty in a way that just pushes the border of politeness. For their first meal together, just the two of them, the narrator orders scrambled eggs instead of the more suggestive oysters. Besides driving around, Maxim and the narrator go dancing and what can be romantic than that? When he learns that the narrator is likely to leave for the US, Maxim matter-of-factly proposes and then says he regrets that the narrator will mature (“It’s a pity you have to grow up”). Well, that and a few more lines might rankle women of today but this was the 1940s.
For the Netflix 2020, we have Maxim and the narrator on the beach after earlier in another location spying a couple on a boat getting more physically romantic than would be proper. And then they get similarly very cozy. When Maxim learns the narrator is leaving we see Hammer’s Maxim in a tank top, but in the 1940 version, Olivier is in a bathrobe which seems more appropriate for his class and the era. I don’t think that the score for either “Rebecca” is ideal, but the Netflix 2020 is more jarring.
On Amazon Prime Video, I watched an old version with outdated commercials (Theatre 62 from 1962). The commercials break the suspense and make the overall experience a hoot. PBS subscribers can view a Masterpiece “Rebecca” miniseries.
This “Rebecca” is not good gothic. The heat of a few scenes between Hammer and James won’t warm up this adaptation to more than a low simmer. Hammer, 34, is also not that much older than James, 31. (There was a decade between Olivier and Fountaine.) The intensity of the hate generated by Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers as she attempts to incite the narrator’s suicide is extinguished by expansiveness of the cinematography. Much of the framing seems center-weighted. On Netflix, the frame is an extreme landscape. At times, I felt as if the director was more in love with the house than the story. (For more on the filming locations, see this Newsweek article.)
If the gothic genre is supposed to be chick lit, then maybe it’s time for a woman to guide this turgid tale on to the screen. Someone who was raised on gothic romances, should try a give us a new “Rebecca” for the modern, post-Breen Office in full color rendition. From the music to the lighting, to the framing of most scenes, this “Rebecca” is gothic gone mild.