A mishandling of the classic novel, Netflix’s Rebecca is beautifully shot but over-sexualised and poorly cast.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The perfect opening line for what was portrayed to be a refreshing remake of Daphne du Maurier’s mystery thriller Rebecca. Produced by Netflix rather than a conventional studio, this film was set to be a “new” version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 production of du Maurier’s novel. The Netflix remake of the classic, gothic novel was announced whilst I was studying Rebecca for Advanced Higher English. Having watched Hitchcock’s black and white version, my classmates and I were eager to see how the novel would be adapted yet again into a film, this time geared towards a modern-day audience. The trailer made it clear that the director, Ben Wheatley, planned on selling this timeless classic as a highly sexualised romance drama, completely mishandling the gothic mystery and themes of coming-of-age and feminism, which were implicit in the original.
The action begins in the ostentatious yet beautiful setting of Monte Carlo on the French Riviera, where the heroine (Lily James) is working as a paid travel companion for an obnoxious, nouveaux riche American woman. Summering on the Cote d’Azur, wealthy Englishman Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) finds himself enchanted by our heroine’s beauty, innocence, and nervousness, proposing to her almost straight away: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!” Whilst the idea of an affluent man rescuing a young, orphaned girl from what is essentially servitude seems, on first inspection, all generous and lovely, I think I’m speaking for all girls when I say that this is not the way you want the love of your life to ask you to marry him. He called her a fool, like she’s a child! As for the setting, it is a dream of many to spend a summer sunning yourself in the south of France, and don’t get me wrong, the film does this fantasy justice with luxurious hotels and stunning vast beaches — Monte Carlo glitters, in colour this time. However, Maxim’s sexual obsession with the heroine somewhat taints this perfect image, with his unsettling, creepy gaze, spelling his first initial, M, in sand on her back. The dynamic of the relationship does not sit well, especially to a modern audience.
Returning from their honeymoon in Europe, the heroine and Maxim settle into Maxim’s estate in England, Manderley, a perfectly impressive setting for the remainder of the film. Filmed in eight different country mansions throughout England, the large rooms, long corridors, and gothic paraphernalia all create an eerie mood and quickly highlight the mystery of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, as she begins to overshadow the heroine. Perhaps the best-cast role in the whole film, Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Mrs Danvers, the manipulative and incredibly hostile housekeeper. Her pivotal role of protecting Rebecca’s legacy and sabotaging the new Mrs de Winter is definitely an upgrade from the almost impassive character played by Judith Anderson in Hitchcock’s version. In her isolation and jealousy, she makes the heroine’s life in Manderley what can only be described as a living hell.
As far as the relationship between Mrs de Winter and Maxim is concerned, the passion and sexualisation depicted in the novel is nothing compared to the wild rides of the characters in this version. Evidently done to attract a modern audience, it appears that Maxim is constantly wanting to make love to his young wife, even though du Maurier suggests in the novel that Rebecca’s sex drive and multiple affairs were what ultimately split the pair up. The actors are also far too attractive to successfully fit into their roles, with the main problem being Maxim and his muscles – not what I had pictured him looking like. Hammer’s image simply does not have the suicidal misery required for the character of Maxim de Winter. Nevertheless, James has perfected the heroine’s immature personality and weakness. This version is tainted by the craving to make to the protagonists likeable. Whilst Maxim gets a lot of mileage out of that mustard-coloured suit, as the heroine does with her many berets, this remake of Rebecca falls flat. The audience might expect more from Wheatley, as the creator of psychological chillers Kill List and A Field in England. Although the characters and dynamics of the plot may be disappointing, personally I find the real highlight of the film is the cinematography – to me, the film is shot amazingly – the camera angles, the sound, tension building, pathetic fallacy – all of it is top-notch. This reproduction of the classic film and novel has its moments, but all in all, leaves much to be desired.