Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 1 minute, Director – Ben Wheatley
After meeting on the French Riviera a young woman (Lily James) falls in love with a wealthy man (Armie Hammer) who is still plagued by the memory of his late first wife
Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is regarded as a true classic gothic thriller. Many have brought it to the screen, perhaps most notably Alfred Hitchcock, whose take on the film won 1941 Oscar for Best Picture. Now sees a new take on the story of a young woman (Lily James) who falls in love with a wealthy man, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), after meeting on the French Riviera, gradually learning of the dark past of her new husband and the tragedy of his late wife, Rebecca. When Netflix announced that Ben Wheatley would be bringing his take on du Maurier’s classic novel to their service, and cinemas, the choice seemed highly fitting – especially with Wheatley’s past of working with dark and gothic themes, particularly in his early films. Yet, this new take on Rebecca almost seems to be without an overly gothic tone.
The first 20 minutes of the film, as the young couple come together and get to know each other within the grounds of a lavish French hotel, where James’ unnamed protagonist (only really going by the new Mrs. de Winter) is acting as the low-paid companion for an elderly and wealthy lady (Ann Dowd) who looks down on and sneers at her employee, are highly romanticised. Everything plays at as an idyllic romance drama. Two unlikely people coming together and then running off to be married, ignoring those who say it won’t work. How could it not work? Well, it seems that everyone else knows why while our central figure is left out of the ring. Mr. de Winter is rumoured to have a dark past, mostly in relation to his first, now deceased, wife. Comparisons between wives old and new are made, although quietly in the eyes of the other figures throughout the film. Doubts begin to emerge about James as she notices the odd stares she receives, eventually being told “He can’t love you because you’re not her”. Much mystery lies around Rebecca. One certainty is that she’s undeniably highly missed by both the de Winter family and the antagonistic housekeeper of Maxim’s Manderley estate, Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas).
All the elements of the film work rather well together. The performances are good and the general design helps to emphasise the lavish nature of the lives that the characters lead. And yet there’s one major contrast that gets in the way of the piece being properly investing. While every element is in agreement for the tone that they are aiming for the film itself feels as if it’s aiming for something different. The two tones conflict and mean that the film never feels like it properly settles. Even with slight shifts in tone during the film as a new element is introduced, a new act begins; or characters simply dramatically change their behaviour and attitudes in a split second with no gradual development, the tone the film seems to want doesn’t match that of the elements within it – not to say that this is the fault of Wheatley’s direction, this certainly isn’t the case. It almost seems to be something that happened in the editing room when the film was being pieced together and the pacing confirmed.
There’s a scene during Rebecca where Lily James is at a party. Her character feels out of place and unsure of her surroundings. Thoughts are rushing through her head in a state of confusion and upset. The camera slowly pans downward to gaze up at her as she looks around the room unsure as to where to go. It was at this point that I realised I wasn’t connected with her character, or the film. You’re not in the world that the cast and crew have been trying to create and have simply, for most of the run-time, been watching a screen. A lot of this seems to come down to the tonal conflictions between the film and its various different elements. It seems no major fault of any of the cast and crew, who all put in a good turn. It simply seems to not be quite as gothic or dark as it potentially wants to be and therefore conflicts with itself and leaves the viewer outside of its world in doing so.
Each of the individual elements of Rebecca work well together to try and create a mysterious tone and feel to the thriller. Yet it seems that the film loses itself somewhere, perhaps in the editing room, feeling as if it aims for something else and therefore disallowing the viewer from engaging with, or feeling a part of, it.