Watching Netflix’s Rebecca, it’s easy to wonder: why? Why remake a beloved, Oscar-winning cinematic classic? What’s the point of resurrecting Daphne du Maurier’s vintage novel when it’s already been made to perfection? But then again, why not? Why not revive the Gothic romance with a hot new cast and a talented director behind the lens? Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca may not live up to the iconic Hitchcock version, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a fresh, intoxicating take on the novel that is here to entertain. And it does just that, although not much more.
Lily James stars as the unnamed protagonist, a unanimous blonde orphan working as a companion to a wealthy American woman named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). The pair are traveling in Monte Carlo when they come upon the recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). He is a handsome, wealthy man who finds himself smitten with our heroine. After a whirlwind romance, Maxim decides to marry her and whisk her away to Manderly, his impressive Cornwall estate. The decadent manor is foreign territory to the new Mrs. de Winter, who is unaccustomed to such extravagance. To make matters worse, she butts heads with the housekeeper, the harsh Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), and finds herself in the shadows of her husband’s dead first wife, Rebecca.
This beautiful ghost of Manderly haunts Mrs. de Winter. Even in death she is everywhere, her myth like a toxin. Maxim seems obsessed with her still, as does Mrs. Danvers, who foists judgment and spite at the second Mrs. de Winter for lacking her predecessor’s power. How can one step into the shoes of someone so magnificent? As Mrs. de Winter’s insecurity grows, so too does her isolation. Meanwhile, questions are waged. What really happened to Rebecca, and why does her name evoke both passion and fear in all who knew her?
Those familiar with du Maurier’s novel or the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film know the answers, and might find themselves bored with this hip new version of the story. It lacks the finesse of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but it adequately captures the page-turning deliciousness of the book. Wheatley’s version is not high art, but it hits the notes of melodrama, even if it never quite masters them. This version of Rebecca is highly watchable, and a lot of fun, although it falls a bit short of its potential. There are moments of brilliance peppered throughout—imaginative dream sequences that bend reality and ballroom dances alive with color—though they leave one hungry for more. As such, the film can feel a bit frustrating, like you’re urging it to go full-tilt into madness instead of tipping its toes in here and there.
Still, the final result is easy to recommend and enjoyable as hell to sit through. There is a decadence to this that Wheatley nails. It’s in the lush 1940s costumes, and the way Dowd and Scott Thomas chew through scenery like its nothing, and in Armie Hammer’s jawline. When Mrs. de Winter stands on the shoreline—the waves mashing in the distance, the earth carved about her—we’re transported to the fantasy realm of the Gothic novel. Where ghosts like Rebecca haunt the psyche and infect the page. Where everything is arch, where lines are askew, and where emotions run rampant.
This version of Rebecca only dances on the ledge of its psychological possibilities. But it’s a pretty, breezy dance with a little splash of evil where appropriate. And it leaves one eager to see where the modern Gothic romance could go next. With any luck, this will renew interest in a genre that deserves its place in the current canon. But even if it doesn’t, we’re left with a highly entertaining entry in the Netflix catalogue. One that will have you dreaming of Manderly again.
Featured Image: Netflix