For most of the runtime of Netflix’s new film Rebecca, it’s impossible to tell that Ben Wheatley, director of such striking arthouse oddities as A Field in England and High-Rise, is the mastermind behind it. Up to this point, all of Wheatley’s films have had a healthy helping of strangeness, from the increasingly psychedelic visuals in the black-and-white A Field in England to the gory, occult twistiness of Kill List. His new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, by contrast, seems like the filmic equivalent of a vacation postcard. Flashes of Wheatley’s trademark eeriness cut through the glossiness every once in a while, but not often enough to distinguish Rebecca as a great film, let alone to distinguish it from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation, which won a Best Picture Oscar. The main thing the movie has going for it are two strong performances.
Unfortunately, Armie Hammer’s isn’t one of them. Hammer plays the mysterious Maxim de Winter, a wealthy man who sweeps up an unnamed lady’s companion (Lily James). To the heroine, an orphan of low social standing, he seems perfect. He’s tall, handsome, and incredibly wealthy, and he’s kind to her when so much of her exposure to “high society” thus far has been demeaning. The woman she waits on, Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), seems to derive pleasure solely from emphasizing the difference in their social standing.
Following a hasty wedding, Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter make their way to Manderley, Maxim’s seaside estate. Once there, the picturebook quality of their romance begins to fade. Maxim seems unable to control his temper whenever he’s reminded of his late wife Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the icy housekeeper, seems even more reluctant to let the late Mrs. de Winter go. Will the new marriage last, now that the honeymoon period is over?
James, whose appeal has carried movies like Cinderella and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, brings her usual shine to the first part of the film. She plays the part of the ingenue wonderfully, but as the film digs further into Gothic horror, and in its last act, transforms into what feels like a different story entirely, she’s left adrift. Even as the true nature of the relationship between Maxim and his last wife grows clearer, James, Hammer, and Wheatley fail to make a particularly compelling case for the two leads staying together. The sensuousness of Hitchcock’s adaptation made a strong argument for love and lust prevailing over common sense, but the comparatively antiseptic nature of the chemistry between James and Hammer makes the new Mrs. de Winter’s decision to stick around a baffling choice.
Part of what made the original novel so fascinating was du Maurier’s look into the characters’ deep flaws and the dark side of romance, but Wheatley’s adaptation, despite his directorial fascination with darkness, yearns for a happily ever after. True love will win out, as far as the new take is concerned, even if it means glossing over everything that actually makes the characters interesting.
As a result, the baddies of the piece, Thomas and Sam Riley (as Rebecca’s cousin) are infinitely more colorful. Thomas is terrifying, and her composure makes her cruelty to the new Mrs. de Winter even more frightening, and frustrating when she feigns just enough vulnerability to remain employed when reprimanded for her behavior. Riley, playing the scoundrel Jack Favell, is infinitely more charming than the leading man. Hammer doesn’t seem appealingly roguish, so much as stoic in a decidedly unfun way. Favell is a cad, but he makes for a better romantic hero than this version of Maxim does.
Wheatley’s flair for visuals comes through in nightmares that the new Mrs. de Winter has as her husband sleepwalks around the estate. The colors shift to make it seem as though Manderley itself has been plunged underwater. Rabid plant life consumes the lead character. These are wonderful, Guillermo del Toro-esque scenes. But they’re quick to come and go, leaving the movie without anything so distinctive to hang its hat upon.
So it’s what James and Thomas bring to the table that makes this new adaptation of Rebecca worth watching. Though James flounders as the film turns into a courtroom drama toward the end, she’s still one of the most emotive leading ladies currently working, and Thomas’ physical and vocal self-control make her Mrs. Danvers a figure to be feared — and befitting of the stranger Rebecca that’s visible in glimpses throughout this ultimately placid film.
Rebecca is streaming on Netflix now.