“Rebecca” review: Hitchcock’s version eclipses this Re-du Maurier


“Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderley,” begins both Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 bestseller “Rebecca,” and nearly every Gothic novel that has followed, including the winner for Best Atmospheric Film of 1940 by Alfred Hitchcock. With such a definitive version already in the books, why reboot “Rebecca”? Well, as the opening line itself suggests, you can go back and forth to the tragi-romantic realm of the film – shrouded in fog and mystery – as often as you like. A new take may be reckless, but it’s not without interest, and “High Rise” director Ben Wheatley aims to appeal to first-time visitors.If Rebecca was the first Mrs. de Winter, and the character of Joan Fontaine was the second, what does it do to the two wives in the latest Wheatley update? The third and the fourth? Or thirty-first and second? No doubt many people have never read du Maurier’s novel, nor seen any version of it. These audiences are the most likely target of this retro-styled period thriller released by Netflix, which will inevitably be compared to Hitchcock’s first US production, on which the budding British author merged visions with the classic Hollywood producer. David O. Selznick.

That makes Hitch’s “Rebecca” the Rebecca of this remake: The previous film is so important to everything Wheatley does that it necessarily gives the new project an inferiority complex. But neither the director nor his writing team (“Stardust” scribe Jane Goldman, assisted by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) are trying to make a simple remake here. Their “Rebecca” is more of a rehab, reinstating some key ideas that the Hays Code (Hollywood’s playbook for self-censorship from the mid-1930s to the late 60s) cleaned up.

In du Maurier’s novel, a young woman of humble origins (played here by Lily James) is swept away by the recent widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, looking more like a vintage model JC Leyendecker than ever) while accompanying his employer fussbudget (Ann Dowd) in Monte Carlo. Romance quickly erupts – as is customary in this unusually combustible drama – and before our heroine has time to make sense of her emotions, she is escorted back to Manderley, the British mansion that resembles Maxim’s castle. , perched precariously near a wall of rugged Cornish cliffs. This vertiginous arrangement was a recurring theme in du Maurier’s work, as “My cousin Rachel” recalls, leaving the audience with the quietly disturbing unease that the characters, if not the situation as a whole, could plunge to their peril at all. moment.

No matter how warm Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter are (this is a remarkable detail in du Maurier’s commentary on gender roles and the raw power imbalance in this particular marriage whose first name is never mentioned. ) whose first name is never mentioned on the Côte d’Azur takes an atrocious turn once back. in Manderley – a place haunted by Rebecca’s memory and flown over by head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, whose cast resembles the film’s true raison d’être).

Ms. Danvers is one of those iconic female roles – like Lady Macbeth – whose influence resurfaces throughout modern cinema, complicated by queer subtext actor Judith Anderson hinted at in her original performance. The temptation must have been great to camp, but Thomas made the most effective choice to reveal the dimensions of his motivations, even though his “love” for his mistress loses some of the ambiguity that made the classic Mrs. Danvers such a villain. annoying. She’s the one, not Maxim, who mourns the loss of the original Mrs. de Winter the most, and Thomas’s interpretation is effective enough that we don’t measure it against the image Anderson burned to us there. for a long time.

There are no literal ghosts in “Rebecca” – no characters wandering the halls draped in white sheets, no semi-transparent ghosts lurking in the background. But it’s quite a ghost story in the sense that the main character is never seen, most certainly dead, and yet his presence can be felt in every aspect of the film. Psychologically, the film does an expert study of the insecurities anyone feels about putting themselves in another person’s shoes, aligning the audience with James’ perspective as we share his paranoia: the suspicion that all staff are judging her. and chatting behind his back. . She just can’t believe that her new student husband could have seen something in her that was preferable to the perfection everyone attributes to the previous Mrs. de Winter – although maybe that has more to do with l adulation of Mrs. Danvers on her death. mistress.

For about three-quarters of the uptime, “Rebecca” does a respectable job of navigating between respecting the source and establishing her own distinct identity. And then, precisely when it comes to making some enlightened improvements – when Maxim reveals his involvement in Rebecca’s demise, forcing his new wife to make a tough choice – this Rolls-Royce of an adaptation pulls away from the road. The idea was clearly to strengthen the agency of James’ character, making her more actively involved in removing her husband’s name. But she’s been a doe-eyed jerk up to this point (look how long it takes her to figure out Rebecca drowned), so Nancy Drew’s third act routine doesn’t really fly – or even necessary. to put the case to rest.

There was an opportunity here for the macabre Wheatley to lead ‘Rebecca’ into darker territory, but he and longtime DP Laurie Rose instead embraced a sleek, gilded 1930s idea that seems so far removed from the sinister Impressionist realm. from Hitchcock shadows like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Anthony Minghella is from Wheatley’s own “Kill List”. Its update opens in the decadent glow of “To Catch a Thief,” then allows the exquisite production and costume design to collide with that feeling the new Mrs. de Winter must have that there is termites swarming under all of those decadent surfaces – which has been a signature of Wheatley’s other films so far.

In a way, the director seems to have fallen into a trap similar to the one that trapped Hitchcock: in both versions, the producers take a dominant hand, going beyond certain instincts of the directors. Here was the idea of ​​the Working Title team – who leveraged unconventional talents to run beloved literary properties in the past, so the world got the modern version of Joe. Wright on “Pride & Prejudice” – to hire Wheatley for the project. But one suspects they may not have let him get as dark as his instincts might have taken the material, making this return to Manderley a little more combustible.


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