Ben Wheatley’s new film, Rebecca, is the second cinematic adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic romance. It was first adapted by David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. That Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, though Hitchcock himself reportedly felt that Rebecca was more indicative of Selznick’s style than his own.
Ben Wheatley, as one might expect from the brilliant director of A Field in England, takes his own idiosyncratic approach to the material. From the start, he gets two things right when he casts Lily James as the second Mrs. de Winter and Armie Hammer as the enigmatic Maxim de Winter. James and Hammer are ideal for these roles because they’re both so achingly pretty that they seem like they belong on the cover of a gothic romance. That’s especially true of Armie Hammer, who has never been that interesting of an actor but who still has the type of chiseled screen presence that makes him ideally suited for roles like the one that he plays here. He’s tall, handsome, a bit dull, and undeniably upper class. He’s an appealing slab of beef and that makes him perfect for the role of Maxim de Winter.
Directing in vibrant color and taking advantage of the fact that the films stars two of the best-looking people working in the movies today, Wheatley brings an erotic charge to the story that was missing from Hitchcock’s more sedate (and Production code-restricted) version of the story. When Maxim and the woman who will became the second Mrs. de Winter embark on their whirlwind romance on the French Riviera, there might as well be a title card that announces, “Yeah, they’re fucking.” There’s nothing subtle about it but, at the same time, it provides a definite contrast to the second part of the film, in which Maxim and Mrs. de Winter return to the grand but chilly mansion of Manderley and Maxim goes from being charming and sensual to being cold and withdrawn.
It’s also at Manderley that we meet Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is obsessed with preserving the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. Scott Thomas is perfect casting for Mrs. Danvers. In fact, at first, she seems almost too perfect for the role. She’s so imperious and passive aggressively hostile when we first meet her that I was worried that Scott Thomas wouldn’t be able to bring much more to the role beyond what she had already shown. However, as the film progresses, Scott Thomas turns Danvers into a surprisingly vulnerable character, with the film suggesting that she’s as much of a victim of Rebecca’s toxic legacy as anyone else at Maderley.
Wheatley’s Rebecca is all about the journey of the second Mrs. de Winter and her transformation from being meek and somewhat mousey to being someone who refuses to be cast in anyone else’s shadow. When Maxim says that Mrs. de Winter is no longer the innocent girl that he meet on the Riviera, Maxim is disappointed but Mrs. de Winter is not. By the end of the film, the de Winters resemble none other than Henry and June Miller, searching the world for their place and casting seductive glances at the audience.
Visually, it’s a stunning film. The colors are vibrant. The sets are ornate. The costumes are to die for. That said, the film itself is never quite as engaging as it should be. Despite the strength of the cast, the film still leaves the viewer feelings somewhat detached. It’s all wonderfully produced by the film still feels more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Wheatley is a brilliant filmmaker but, when the second Mrs. de Winter announces that everything she’s been through is worth it because she’s found love, you don’t believe her and you don’t get the feeling that, deep down, Wheatley believes her either. Instead, it’s hard not to feel that this version of Rebecca is a romance that doesn’t believe in love. It’s interesting but it’s not particularly satisfying.