Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is equal parts lavish and hollow, like a visit to a luxury department store—many fine goods are on display, but it’s just a bunch of f-cking handbags, Charlotte. Rebecca, already made to perfection by Alfred Hitchcock, tells the story of the second Mrs. de Winter, here played by Lily James, a young wife transported from the service class to the gentry by her rich and powerful husband, the widower Maxim de Winter, played with cadaverous vigor by Armie Hammer. At Maxim’s ancestral seat, Manderley, reins the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (a brutally frozen Kristin Scott Thomas), who reminisces constantly about the deceased Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. The new Mrs. de Winter is increasingly tormented by the specter of the dead Rebecca and the secrets her husband is keeping, until it all comes crashing down in a howling Gothic inferno.
Wheatley’s Rebecca is a strange exercise; it’s impossible to top Hitchcock’s previous work, so it’s almost like Wheatley attempts to see how inert and boring he can render the text. Hammer and James have no chemistry, which turns the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s relationship into a Faustian bargain of protection in exchange for devotion. The unnamed lady’s maid gets to become mistress of the manor, but she might have to help her maybe-murderous husband cover up a homicide. There is no reason for Maxim and the maid to fall in love except that conventionally attractive people look good standing next to one another, and there is so little passion in their interludes on the French Riviera that it boggles the mind when Maxim insists on marrying the woman rather than let her go. It starts to feel like a possible Bluebeard scenario and Maxim is looking for his next victim.
One expects Kristin Scott Thomas to come to the film’s rescue and provide SOME interest once the new Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers begin clashing at Manderley, but no. Not even KST can liven things up. Mrs. Danvers is appropriately cold and embittered and cruel, but Rebecca is so chilly overall that it ices out any sense of Mrs. Danvers’ fanaticism. This whole film feels like everyone is just going through the motions, like a weird drama-class exercise caught on camera. James, incredibly winsome in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, displays none of her usual charm, and flits from motivation to motivation so quickly it’s hard to get a read on the second Mrs. de Winter. Is she fatuously in love or desperate to escape servitude, a naïve miss or a social climber? Who knows! Hammer is no better, being wildly miscast and completely unable to suggest passion, suavity, or Maxim’s seething anger. Hammer’s Maxim is a classic case of “Is he a broodingly sexy man of mystery or his he just tall?” (He’s just tall.) Thomas comes off the best, but even she seems to be doing Lesley Manville cosplay.
Ben Wheatley is an engagingly offbeat filmmaker, whose senses of spectacle and the bizarre often combine in unusual, unsettling ways, but none of that is on display in Rebecca. It is a straightforward adaptation of a story already well told by a master, and one that, in side-stepping the previous adaptation, is left with very little to do. Sure, it’s pretty to look at (lensed by Wheatley’s frequent collaborator Laurie Rose), but there is no mystery, no tension or drama. If you’ve never seen or read Rebecca, this will obviously work better for you, but if you have even passing familiarity with the story, Wheatley’s Rebecca will seem like nothing but a lifeless shell. The problem with any mystery is that once the trick is known, it cannot be unknown, and this Rebecca is just the same old trick as before, but with less fervor and horror. Rebecca is a carapace, a shiny, extravagant shell of something better that came before. In short, just watch Phantom Thread.
Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix.