The expression “hard act to follow” rings like a peal of bells both centrally and superficially when it comes to the new adaptation of Rebecca premiering on Netflix. Boy, that’s the movie and its new bride protagonist to a T. Matching the saying’s highest definition and less the vaudevillian one, Ben Wheatley’s film has to follow “something so exemplary that it overshadows anything that follows.” Even after 80 years, how does one follow the success and legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture-winning film? The answer is easy. You can’t and you don’t. You stick to the source material and make your film your way.
With his own edgy flourishes, Wheatley has done that with Daphne du Maurier’s scandalous 1938 novel. He and his film cannot match the signature black-and-white gothic atmosphere that makes the 1940 version a revered classic. All the High-Rise and Free Fire filmmaker could do was gather his own paintbrushes. Free from the Hays Code that squelched Hitch, there was ripe room to expand stagey boundaries. This Rebecca, even with all the idiomatic bell ringing, colors an engrossing mood all its own that is more than suitable to recognize and appreciate.
For those new to the intrigue of du Maurier, the Rebecca narrative is all about the next lover of a tough act to follow. A blond young woman (the enchanting Cinderella herself Lily James) is traveling on holiday as a lowly ward and lady’s companion to the haughty Mrs. Van Hopper (the stellar Ann Dowd) in lavish 1930s Monte Carlo. Her hotel sewing circle is a-buzz with the presence of the well-to-do Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, proving impossible handsomeness can cover terrible accent work). The spruce man of generational wealth has been widowed by the death of his first wife. Society gossip and hearsay fill in the background of the mournful circumstances he refuses to speak of.
Our young lady is someone so undistinguished and infinitesimal that she, matching the narrated book, does not have a character name until she becomes the second Mrs. de Winter a half-hour into the film. Their whirlwind courtship rescues the commoner from Mrs. Van Hopper and changes her stars into a woman of title and potential power. Soaring to be more than a temporary squeeze, she is the devoted ray of sunshine that longs to recede his grief and distrust.
Let’s hold up for a second to present the stone-cold obvious. Head over heels or not, do not marry a man after a week-long vacation tryst. Sure, he may have money and means and look like Armie Hammer, but Maxim de Winter is little more than the Brazilian helicopter pilot fantasy from Inside Out. That amount of shared time not an audition for married life and its responsibilities. Even The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and most of the other cockamamie marriage reality shows stretch things out longer than two handfuls of days. Shit, girl, get to know someone and have some red flags checked.
Jokes aside, everywhere the new Mrs. de Winter ventures and in every emotion she attempts to sway, the spectre of Maxim’s titular first wife is inescapable. The loneliness is ominously strong. When Maxim brings his bride home to his vast coastal Manderlay estate, she is confronted with Rebecca’s lasting imprint. Ghosts are comprised of more than people. Oft-spoken comments of her gorgeous existence from everyone who knew her and her remaining monogrammed belongings all over the mansion, right down to strands of her striking brunette hair, linger and beleaguer the newlyweds. Even when a person is dead and gone, cherished objects and unshakable memories can often haunt better than spirits wearing sheets walking corridors and catwalks.
The topmost curator of that prim and proper torment is the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, played with dry astuteness by Kristin Scott Thomas. Even while occupying what is supposed to be a subordinate position to the lady of the house, her stature and high standards feel insurmountable to Mrs. de Winter. Every facial tick and manicured oral reply from the former Oscar nominee spin duplicitously like her thaumatrope toy between grimaced pleasantry and stern intimidation. It’s a brilliant and award-worthy performance from Thomas.
Just when Mrs. de Winter gets close to making a breakthrough, old secrets morph into unresolved jealousy. All Mrs. de Winter longs for is Maxim’s love. She has chosen the side to stand by her man, even if he’s unreachable. Her efforts are being undermined constantly by Mrs. Danvers with terse damnations like “you’re not her” and “he can’t love you.” Happiness is being sabotaged. Breaking points and shocking truths threaten to ruin hearts and psyches even more.
Where Ben Wheatley distills Daphne du Maurier’s preeminent gothic themes is with beguilement through beautification. Costume designer Julian Day, pivoting from recent successes on Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, drapes all with period finery. The moment he puts Hammer’s 6’5” tall-drink-of-water frame into that mustard suit, any telegraphed doom and gloom disappears. James is a picturesque belle as well. The same can be said of the impeccable production design by regular Joe Wright collaborator Sarah Greenwood using the Cranborne Manor in Dorset and the rugged Hartland Quay coastline to fill internal and external vistas soaked up by cinematographer Laurie Rose’s lenses and filters.
All of that purposeful elegant production value for Rebecca attempts to create a steeper contrast with the underlying wicked elements that darken the true core. The width is there with a screenplay that extends and brightens the initial passion of the first act and amps up the criminal twists of the final one. Unfortunately, what is richly hidden is not quite intense enough to race those blood vessels when necessary.
Rebecca tries unsuccessfully at times to sip a little bit of that poisonous mother! Lite brew mixed into Clint Mansell’s inconsistent musical score. Vibrant color doesn’t match a traditional gothic atmosphere, but it doesn’t lessen the aura entirely. It merely paints a new one that is harder to smear than one that is monochromatic. This might be a place, however, where one roots for more spoiling dirt to madden that potential messiness.