Revisiting Manderley

Unnecessary remake of Rebecca misses its marks

Lily James and Armie Hammer in Rebecca. (Photo: Netflix)

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." For fans of classic literature, this is one of the most hauntingly well-known opening lines in fiction ever. Rebecca is a gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, a well-known English author from the 20th century whose work such as The Birds, Don't Look Now, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn and many more have been successfully adapted into films over the years.

The film adaptation of Rebecca in 1940 was probably her most well-known, partly because it was directed by the master of the psychological thriller Alfred Hitchcock. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and is still considered one of the classics today. While I'm not sure if anybody needs a remake to this yet, it has been about 80 years now since Hitchcock's Oscar-winning version, so perhaps this might be a good time to retell this great story for today's generation.

Premiered on Netflix this week, the new Rebecca is directed by Ben Wheatley and stars Lily James in the role of a young, naive and unnamed personal assistant, who travels with her boss on a holiday to Monte Carlo. There she meets with aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who's been living in Monaco for several months, grieving over his recently deceased wife, Rebecca. The two soon fall in love, and after a few weeks of vacationing together, he proposes to her and brings her home to his lavish mansion, Manderley, on the English coast.

The romantic fling in the beginning goes sour once the girl steps into the place. It's obvious that Maxim and his servants are still not over the recent loss of the previous Mrs de Winter. The entire mansion is still covered with her trademark R monogram. Her room and belongings have been preserved and kept alive by Manderley's sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). The new wife is overwhelmed and haunted by the shadow of Rebecca, continually questioning whether she's good enough for Maxim, and if she will ever live up to Rebecca's legacy. The film then begins as a creepy thriller with lots of mysteries surrounding Maxim, Mrs Danvers and the mansion with lots of tension as the girl slowly uncovers more of Rebecca's mystery.

In contrast to Hitchcock's original black and white cinematography, it's nice to see how this new film boldly embraces colour and a sense of fashion that is very stylish. And I think it's a very well crafted period piece. The scenery is beautifully shot, whether they're in Monte Carlo or the English estate, or even each room inside Manderley where the movie is able to capture the image of sophistication and elegance. The first half of Rebecca is quite suspenseful, director Wheatley nicely sculpts attention with distinct camerawork and an eerie atmosphere. You also get some great performances from cast members. Scott Thomas is devilishly good as always and her performances as Mrs Danvers is key to keeping the film engaging. I think James is just the right fit for a character who's struggling with all the pressures, but tries to fight back. Hammer, who's previously known from Call Me By Your Name, does a fine job here playing a cold-hearted husband who's distant.

Unfortunately, the tone and shape of the plot changes dramatically after the dangerous secret about Rebecca is revealed.

Instead of a suspenseful thriller, the film turns into a more dry and flat courtroom drama in the final act, focusing on Maxim and a new set of problems rather than following the distressed wife whom we've gotten to know and can relate to. While this was still a really good movie-watching experience, it doesn't have the kind of conclusion or payoff that I would have preferred. The 2020 Rebecca definitely comes in a different style and direction to Hitchcock's movie.

Whereas the original is much more of a mystery/drama, this one takes on the romance and melodrama genre and kind of pushes that to the forefront, and that's fine if you're in this strictly for the drama. But if you're looking for a creepy, suspenseful story as told in the original novel and film, this may not be for you.

  • Rebecca
  • Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ann Dowd
  • Directed by Ben Wheatley
  • Now streaming on Netflix

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