For Starters …
My history with Rebecca (in print and on screen) goes back … way back to the early 1990s when my academic and cinematic worlds collided. You see, I was in the early days of my classic movie journey/obsession and was immediately drawn to the works of the Master of Suspense himself, one Alfred Hitchcock.
From early on, I was determined to go through his entire filmography in chronological order – well except for some of his early silent films, which at the time were not widely available. Eventually, I arrived at his award-winning 1940 adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier 1938 bestseller of the same name.
At the same time, I was in the midst of my junior year, looking for a subject of my semester term paper in English Lit. Once I found out Rebecca the film was based on the book, I made a beeline to the local library and over the next couple of weeks became completely consumed by the marital tale which had echoes of previous romantic stories I previously read, such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I was also drawn to the traces of the Gothic in the novel. In fact, I centered part of my paper’s thesis on Rebecca as a Gothic work of literature.
When I reflect, composing the paper was an exciting journey of in-depth literary research infused with my earnest investigative nature. The result was a top mark on the paper and an increasing driving enthusiasm for seeing the text come alive on the silver screen.
The result? I have to admit that while I did find it entertaining, I was slightly let down by a few of the changes from book to screen. But I get it – Hitch was under the thumb of the Hays Code so it was inevitable that some things were bound to change. For instance, the root cause of *SPOILER*’s demise and the complicity of a certain individual in that event were greatly altered.
Also lost in adaptation (kind of) was the relationship between Rebecca and her devoted personal maid, Mrs. Danvers, played magnificently by Dame Judith Anderson. I say “kind of” because even with morality standards in place, you could peel back some of Danvers’ movements and interpret them for what they are – a psychosexual link between her and Rebecca.
To Hitch’s credit, he largely captured the atmosphere of my imagination, even with the obvious sound stage and rear projection rigging. Overall, it was a satisfactory viewing experience. Since watching this film, I dug a little further and discovered that since 1940, there have been additional attempts at adapting Du Maurier’s source material. Generally, I chose to ignore these latter day incarnations, wholly happy with what Hitchcock had served up so many years ago.
But we are not here to review that film ….
Enter this glorious year, 2020. As a movie fan, I miss going to theaters, festivals and the like (another post coming soon about THAT). Needless to say, since February, a profoundly moving cinematic experience is notably absent from my life.
This summer, a couple of my friends, in this new socially distanced world, suggested that we have a Rebecca Netflix watch party once the film was available for streaming. I had seen the trailer, an initially was like …
But then I thought a bit more about it. And ultimately, my months longing for a shared film watching experience with friends superseded any reservations I *might* have and I jumped at the chance.
Fast forward a couple of months and there we were, FaceTiming one another, struggling to synch our stream, and eventually settling in and having a fun time in each other’s virtual company. And then there is the film itself. For me, watching Rebecca was a combination of me holding my tongue only long enough to that arrive at that place which I love/dread most when watching content translated from text to screen … but in the book …. In this adaptation, there was a lot of that. That, and a constant guffawing at some of the sillier decisions the characters were making over the film’s run time.
Upon reflection, the only words I could manage to muster when describing the film is ‘meh.’ Here’s why – starting with the bad.
(Lack of) Atmosphere
While this version was a bit more faithful to the original text than Hitchcock’s version, it was lacking some (if not all) of the charm. Maybe charm is not the correct word, but just hang in there and go with me.
I expected, rather hoped, there would be a clever mix of romanticism, with Gothic elements and hints of the supernatural. Instead, Rebecca (2020) stripped most of those elements away and played up the romantic melodrama. This does not mean that those dark elements were totally absent. It is just that I burst out laughing at their presentation (hello, weird CG birds).
As an admirer of director Ben Wheatley’s previous work (notably his adaptation of High-Rise), I was a little surprised at the flatness of the film in parts.
And then there is the (mis)casting. Honestly, I have no comment on Armie Hammer’s portrayal of Maxim de Winter. I could take it or leave, it was that innocuous to me. For that matter, looking at all the supporting characters including Sam Riley as Jack Favell and Keeley Hawes as Maxim’s sister Beatrice, the performance all played to one note. And then there is Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. It was not a bad performance, I just could not read it. But my reservations do not end here …
My main disappointment in the casting department was with Lily James in the role of the second Mrs. de Winter. Why, you might ask? Because this COULD have worked, if not for the mixed information we received concerning her character, our nameless heroine. Initially, I thought it may have had to do with the shifting narrative perspective. Scratch that – this idea immediately falls apart because first-person shifts are more or less a given when adapting a story to the screen.
So onto the next thought which arrived in my head. In the book, Du Maurier describes the 2nd Mrs. de Winter rather specifically. Prior to her role as Edith van Hopper’s paid companion, she lived a quiet, protected life with her artist father. She is a reserved, mousy woman, unsure of herself. One point the novel makes (which the film misses), is the story is one of the narrator coming into her own. The film gives her agency in moments throughout, thus depriving the audience of any big revelation at the end. Instead, we are left with head-scratching moments where the audience questions the narrator’s mental state. A constant question which came up in our screening (and one I did not have an answer for) is:
Throughout all this mess, why is she staying with Maxim?
However, I am willing to cut the character a little slack here and less inclined to call shenanigans totally. This is a story which is, if nothing else, a product of its time, therefore I must factor in The Brief Encounter Coefficient (1). But that only goes so far. In the source material the narrator’s actions work and make some sense. But in terms of the film, her actions lead to the aforementioned chuckles between friends.
Okay, so that was the bad … let’s move on to a couple of positives. Sorry it is so short!
WOW, THE CLOTHES! The classic but contemporary fashion was amazing. I could easily see myself (50 pounds lighter) rocking any of the outfits that Lily James’ character wore. They were lovely.
Also, elements of the production design caught my eye, especially when we were traversing magnificent Cornish coastline with our characters.
The Final Verdict
Now you may be wondering – is there enough good to take my overall opinion over the top and make this Netflix feature a recommend? Well, it should not come as any surprise that it is by and large a “no.” If you want to catch a glimpse of a film (flawed and dated as it might be), I suggest catching the Hitchcock adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.