Movie Review: REBECCA Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristen Scott Thomas
Based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, the new adaptation of REBECCA directed by Ben Wheatley hits Netflix today.
Lily James plays the narrator of the film, who meets Max de Winter (Armie Hammer) while she is working as the companion to socialite Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). The two partake in a whirlwind romance around Monte Carlo, and Max proposes just as their fun is threatened to be cut short. After their honeymoon, the two arrive at Manderlay where the new Mrs. de Winter must adjust to a lifestyle she knows nothing about.
While the film is not technically a remake, it’s hard not to compare it to the 1940 classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The films share many similarities in pacing, and what they choose to adapt, but the first big standout is of course adding color to the story. While the 2020 version is beautifully shot, capturing several gorgeous European locations and the mesmerizing estate of Manderlay, there is something lost telling this gothic romance in color. Hitchcock’s version is so haunting, where the spirit of Rebecca torments the viewer as it does Max de Winter. The latest version almost seems too slick, and too polished – even a bit too modern for a tale set nearly a century ago.
As much as the newly married couple seems in love, the memory of Max’s first wife – Rebecca – seems to threaten their happiness at every turn. Max is visibly disturbed whenever the subject comes up, and remnants of his late wife are everywhere around Manderlay. Making matters worse, the estate’s housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) makes it clear that the new Mrs. de Winter will never stack up to her predecessor. This leads to an increasingly difficult way of life as the new bride struggles to fit in.
Lily James is wonderful as always, in a role made famous by Joan Fontaine. This version of Mrs. de Winter, while still unsure of her new situation, is not as timid or submissive as the original. As the film progresses, she finds her strength and eventually is able to prove her worthiness of filling Rebecca’s shoes. James is immensely talented, and always charming, managing to fit the role quite nicely.
When it comes to Max de Winter, Armie Hammer has a harder time filling out the suit of Laurence Olivier. As handsome as the actor is, he never reaches the level of charm or sophistication the late Oscar-winner possessed. Surprisingly, the American actor’s british accent isn’t that distracting – but the problem is that the performance comes off as dull. The actor doesn’t have the screen presence or charisma to make the character believe, and is overshadowed by James’ raw talent.
Hammer is sidelined by the fantastic portrayal of Mrs. Danvers by Kristen Scott Thomas. Her mysterious obsession with Rebecca is chilling, and the unwillingness to help the new Mrs. de Winter is cruelly executed to perfection by Thomas. The actor lives up to the performance made famous by Judith Anderson, and creates a disturbing tension between the two leading ladies.
Ultimately the film is an acceptable retelling of the classic story, but the question that comes to mind is – why? Wheatley is a good director, but standing in the shadow of a legend like Hitchcock creates an uphill battle from the start (ask Gus Van Sant). The 1940 version is a classic, and remarkable piece of cinema. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, this acts as a fine introduction. But when you are done looking at the new, over-polished version, you won’t regret watching the original.