With any new adaptation of a work that’s already been adapted, there’s always an important question that must be addressed: “Why now?” What can a new cast and crew bring to the table that nobody else has? What new perspectives are available now that weren’t there before?
Obviously, the question becomes far more pertinent when the previous adaptation was Rebecca (1940), a veritable classic made by Alfred Hitchcock himself.
For the uninitiated, Rebecca (2020) is the latest adaptation of the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator (here played by Lily James) who falls in love with the wealthy Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). The two marry and move to de Winter’s ancestral home in Manderley. Trouble is, de Winter was recently widowed and everyone is skittish on the subject of his late wife, the eponymous Rebecca.
So, getting back to the initial question, “Why now?” Well, due to Hollywood censorship policies of the time, the 1940 film adaptation slightly changed the ending so that Rebecca’s death was more accidental in nature. The modern adaptation shifted the ending back into something closer to the source material.
Otherwise, there’s not much here that’s particularly new or noteworthy. At the end of the day, the previous adaptation was directed by one of the greatest and most influential auteurs in cinema history, and this adaptation was directed by the guy who made Free Fire.
I have no problem singling out director Ben Wheatley as the key reason why this doesn’t work, because everything else seems to be in place. Of course we already know the source material can make for great cinema, that’s been proven. Lily James and Armie Hammer are both so smoldering that they easily sell two romantic leads who go from strangers to spouses within a month. In the supporting cast, Kristin Scott Thomas (here playing Mrs. Danvers) is a seasoned talent and Sam Riley was superbly cast as a dashing mysterious rogue.
In terms of visuals, everything looks fine. The sets look good (though I could swear Netflix reused some of the sets from Enola Holmes), and the costumes are all solid. The editing is nicely disconcerting in places, and the shadow-drenched camerawork is fine in theory.
Somehow, none of it all came together. And I couldn’t really figure out why until the third act.
What we’ve got here is a young woman who marries way above her social standing, her husband is a Byronic hero undone by the terrible secret involving his first wife, and the story ends with his house burning down. Of course I’m not saying that “Rebecca” is a rip-off or a retread of “Jane Eyre”, but I’m sure you can see the superficial similarities.
I confess that I haven’t seen the Hitchcock original, but I have seen Jane Eyre (2011), and I can tell you why that movie worked while this one didn’t.
Something else that both stories have in common is their inherently gothic nature. Both stories are highly melodramatic, especially once we get the big reveal. And Jane Eyre (2011) leaned into that melodrama in a way that Rebecca (2020) never did.
Easily the most prominent case in point is Mrs. Danvers, a character whose actions and motivations turn out to be over-the-top psychotic. Alas, the film’s more dull and grounded tone prevent Kristin Scott Thomas from swinging for the fences and playing Danvers as a batshit archvillain like the character was clearly designed for.
This is especially strange upon the recollection of Mrs. Van Hopper, our narrator’s former employer, played by Ann Dowd. The character is played here as a straight-up evil stepmother archetype against Lily James’ Cinderella (if you’ll pardon the reference), and the whole first act unabashedly plays out as a melodramatic fairy tale. (Complete with a lampshade by Mrs. Van Hopper herself.) The filmmakers could’ve easily built on that for the rest of the film, making the rest of the movie just as dark as the first act was bright. Why the hell they didn’t, I couldn’t tell you.
Even with all the oppressive shadows and perturbing dream sequences, the filmmakers simply can’t sell the gothic atmosphere of the setting or the psychological tension of the story. Never once did I feel like Rebecca was a constant offscreen presence, like her ghost was hovering just out of frame, and that’s a crucial factor in getting this premise to work. What may be worse, the movie fails to make any kind of timely or coherent statement with regards to family, grief, justice, etc. While we do get a few threads of potential themes, none of them are pulled together into anything strong enough to keep the momentum going.
The end result is a slog of a second act. None of the unfolding events seem to carry any weight. Our protagonist shows virtually zero agency. Everyone dances around the terrible secret of what happened to Rebecca, even though there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to keep the secret and no urgent reason for why Narrator would need to know.
Rebecca (2020) isn’t subtle or cunning enough to work as a psychological thriller, and it’s not over-the-top enough to work as an effective melodrama. The actors are all wonderful and they’re clearly giving it their all, but they’re hamstrung at every turn by the misguided tone and direction. There’s nothing in the themes or the presentation to make the story new or relevant to a modern audience.
The end result evens out to an unremarkable poorly-paced misfire. Not recommended.