The new film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s iconic 1938 gothic novel “Rebecca” was released on Netflix Oct. 21. Directed by Ben Wheatley and starring the likes of Lily James and Armie Hammer, it’s still overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning film made in 1940.
The story of “Rebecca” follows an unnamed woman (Lily James), a shy and naïve lady’s companion — a woman who lives and travels with a woman of rank or wealth — who meets wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while on holiday with her snobbish employer. She promptly marries Maxim after a short courtship and is taken back to his estate, Manderly, which is run by the cruel and obsessed Mrs. Danvers. However, she discovers that both the estate and Maxim are haunted by the late Mrs. de Winter, who is the titular character.
Although the newest adaptation of the novel is visually stunning, with gorgeous scenery and costumes, the storytelling itself falls incredibly flat. The film’s genre isn’t entirely clear, as the trailer would suggest it’s a psychological trailer, though it doesn’t quite meet this mark. It utilizes supernatural elements inconsistently, making it hard to discern what exactly is actually happening versus what is imagination.
The ghost of the late Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, haunts the new Mrs. de Winter while she’s asleep, but this is only seen once from the back. A strange phenomenon involving a flock of birds over Manderley also occurs once, but it’s never made clear what its purpose was or how it fits into the story at all. The only occasional “supernatural” element is seen later when Maxim sleepwalks toward Rebecca’s old quarters. And while unsettling, this isn’t exactly supernatural.
The former Mrs. de Winter is a looming presence both in Hitchcock and Wheatley’s adaptations. The late charismatic, dark-haired beauty is the opposite of the new Mrs. de Winter, who is shy, mousy and blonde. Although she isn’t really “seen” in either film, her presence is apparent in the house. Her initials are embroidered everywhere, and her room is kept as though she never left at all.
Throughout “Rebecca,” the unnamed woman, who also narrates the movie, can be seen as somewhat of a victim. Timid and unworldly, she marries into something much bigger than she anticipated. One problem with the new adaptation, however, is her character development has no arc. For the majority of the movie, she remains timid only to have a sudden change in demeanor within the last 30 minutes of the film.
This is in contrast to her character in Hitchcock’s version, played by Joan Fontain (“Suspicion,” “The Women”), who gradually builds confidence throughout the film’s runtime. Hitchcock’s character is incredibly likable and seems to have more of an arc than James’ portrayal.
Maxim de Winter, the mysterious and wealthy widower, is also more effectively portrayed in the original film. Played by Sir Laurence Olivier in Hitchcock’s film, his act is a tough one to follow. Olivier’s Maxim, while having his moments of outbursts and anger, is charming. It’s clear that, while he’s plagued by the memory of Rebecca, he does love his new wife.
In Wheatley’s adaptation, however, Hammer’s Maxim is somewhat unlikable, and appears to be more abusive than charming. He’s extremely secretive, more so than in Hitchcock’s version, and unapologetically cruel to the new Mrs. de Winter for the greater first half of the movie. It’s only toward the end that the pieces of his confusing puzzle begin to come together, and yet even then his anger toward the new Mrs. de Winter still doesn’t entirely make sense.
The only character throughout the new adaptation who had any substance was Mrs. Danvers, played by Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Darkest Hour”). While the original Danvers in Hitchcock’s film (Judith Anderson) was cruel, Thomas elevates her character to a whole new level.
Danvers is completely and utterly obsessed with Rebecca, which is particularly heightened in the 2020 adaptation. She will not accept the new Mrs. de Winter and deems Rebecca as being irreplaceable. And while her character is the villain on the page and in Hitchcock’s film, she is somewhat sympathetic in Wheatley’s version.
If there’s one thing the 2020 version gets right, it’s that there isn’t a clear hero or villain. It’s up to the audience to decide who is in the right, if anyone is. And although Hitchcock’s film makes more sense and is executed more effectively, Wheatley’s “Rebecca” is worth watching once.
Wheatley’s “Rebecca” is available to stream on Netflix, while Hitchcock’s adaptation can be found free on YouTube.