It begins in Monte Carlo. A lady’s maid has a chance encounter with the storied Maxim de Winter: rich, handsome, a recent widower. He sends her a note: “Come for a drive.” So begins a succession of daily rendezvous and, increasingly, beachside scenes befitting the French riviera’s enthralling, cliffside shores and sunbaked splendor.
A few drives and some sex on the beach later, that unnamed young woman, played by Lily James, becomes Mrs. de Winter-to-be. Maxim (Armie Hammer) finds himself a second wife, and maybe a chance at happiness. Meanwhile her employer, Mrs. Van Hopper (a very fun Ann Dowd), has only words of caution for her attendant. “Did you really think people wouldn’t talk?” she says. Then: “Do you honestly think he is in love with you?” The man practically went mad after his previous wife’s sudden death, she warns. You’re a rebound, girl. She encourages the young woman to come to New York instead, where she’s sure to find plenty more boys to play with — and of her own class, no less. This last point is worth remembering.
But if the young woman had gone to New York, Rebecca — Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel, which is now streaming on Netflix — wouldn’t be the nasty, gothic melodrama that it is. Or rather, that it aspires to be. Much of the story’s potential power — power that this new version unfortunately squanders — can be summed up in the fact of the lead character’s initial namelessness. Whoever she was before she met Maxim, she is now Mrs. de Winter. Her marriage to Maxim should result in an erasure of whoever, whatever, she was to that point.
A new identity awaits her. Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a lot of things, but perhaps most memorably of all, it’s a novel about the pain of playing the second wife. Mrs. de Winter No. 2 isn’t just marrying a widower. She is, more troublingly, stepping directly into another woman’s shoes — and she apparently has nothing on that other woman who lived in the family estate known as Manderlay. What little we know about the new Mrs. de Winter is, in fact, only enough to justify her susceptibility to the circumstances to come. She’s lonely, she tells the similarly lonely Maxim on one of their early dates, because her parents died when she was young. Now she’s been swept away, drawn into a rude nexus of other people’s long-steeped psychological battles, about which the somewhat mean Mrs. Van Hopper had tried to warn her … in her own way. “Have you ever heard anything more romantic in your life?” the older woman says. “ ‘Home to Manderley.’” This isn’t exactly spoken with a tone of congratulations.
Which is apt. As the better opening half of Wheatley’s film effectively shows — and as Du Maurier’s novel showed us long ago — there are far more romantic things in life than Manderley. Because the place is a mess. Not a literal mess: Its corners couldn’t be better-swept, nor its secrets more damningly hidden. Here’s a warning sign to keep in mind on your next date, however. When a man says his estate is “more than just a house, really — it’s my life,” do yourself a favor: Run. At the very least, when everyone you meet insists on referring to you as the new, or the second, Mrs. de Winter, have your bags packed.
Otherwise, every nook and cranny of your new house, every bit of odd behavior from the dogs, every odd look from the staff, will only secure your sense of displacement. Wheatley’s film gets this part right. The Manderley estate is a grand testament to the life that does not belong to this new woman. None of the accoutrements of her new life are hers; the servants have a way of seeming like they’ve just finished whispering about her when she walks into the room. And with the uncomfortably omniscient, cold-mannered Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) scheming and lingering around odd corners, all sense of home, sweet home immediately evaporates.
This is partially Mr. de Winter’s fault. He’s a man with a habit of breezing past the questions he refuses to answer. He’s also, in this movie, one weak link among many. The problems start early on, when Hammer seems to mumble his way through his lines, somewhat battering his British accent and, more urgently, speeding through the words so quickly at times that there’s little room for personality or a true sense of obfuscation to creep in. But personality is the key to a story like this, and so are secrets. Maxim de Winter, like Manderley, like his first wife Rebecca, is preceded by his reputation. And Rebecca, in the best case scenario, would proceed as if the fog were lifting bit by bit from all that is unknown, only for more terrifying unknowns to emerge, clear as day, in their place.
Here, some of the fog gets snarled on the acting, like a popped balloon. Hammer is often at his best when he’s satirizing the kind of man that his looks imply him to be (see also The Social Network.) James is a bit stronger. As presented here, in the script written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, she has the more interesting role. To begin with, she’s the audience surrogate, and our sympathy to her endangerment gains power from Wheatley’s skill at knitting her new life together at a whirlwind speed. By the time the new Mrs. de Winter accidentally makes her way into Rebecca’s old room and carelessly peruses her things — a clear mistake, though who can blame her for being curious? — the tense urgency is more than a little apparent. And the writing picks up on an important tension that the movie itself, in Wheatley’s hands, unfortunately defuses. James’ natural haplessness amid hidden terrors recovers the thread somewhat. She sells us on the idea that her character’s dilemma owes as much to simply being out of place as it does to her sudden jump in class status. Nevermind that this house is haunted by the memory of a dead wife. There is the additional anxiety of being a woman who, from her background, is more fit to one of Manderley’s maids than to being the lady of the house.
But of course a nice young woman like that proves even less evocative than a sinister housekeeper. Thomas, as Mrs. Danvers, does good work here, and it’s a great pleasure to see the actor impose herself into Wheatley’s images, give a little air to otherwise fitful scenes. Her straight-backed, soft-spoken, rigorous politesse has a way of slowing things down, making them more formal — when Wheatley gives her the space to do so. It’s no wonder James’ de Winter immediately grows tense at the sight of her. Perhaps even more than Rebecca, Danvers functions like an unwanted third leg in this misbegotten triangle of devotion; she has a slick way of reminding the new wife at all turns that the role of Mrs. de Winter is, indeed, a role. It comes with responsibilities, knowledge and poise begotten by class. This new girl simply won’t fit.
Again, we’re bumping up against this movie’s limits. This story is, admittedly, a lot to juggle — that’s long been the thrill of the source material. Great gothic tales have a way of sopping up every nugget of intrigue and potential danger, often drawn along lines of social difference. But in its depiction of one woman living in the shadow of another, Wheatley’s film proves, ironically, to be stuck in a shadow of its own. Two shadows, even. Recently, the triangle at this story’s center was evoked by Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a love triangle of sorts between a wife, a man, and the man’s fiercely protective sister. (In the case the shadow cast was in some ways even hairier: The man, played by the estimable Daniel Day Lewis, was haunted by the absence of his mother, not his wife.)
More obviously, though, Wheatley’s film is itself the second Mrs. de Winter — to Hitchcock’s best picture-winning 1940 adaptation of the same novel. Like Maxim’s dead wife, Wheatley’s similarly incomparable forebear lingers everywhere, unforgettable, frequently missed. It starred an equally unmatchable trio of stars in Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and, most startling of all, Judith Anderson, who made immortal work of the role of Mrs. Danvers.
Hitchcock’s film was contract work under the legendary David Selznick, and maybe this new Rebecca bears a whiff of contract work, too. Either way, it lacks something of Wheatley’s usual peculiarity, The source material initially seemed strange for this director, though as with some of his prior work — the surprisingly violent and enjoyably vile Kill List (2011), the less satisfying but reliably jarring High Rise (2015) — it shares a stylish peeling-back of whatever has obscured some barely-perceptible violence at the narrative’s care. To the director’s credit, this Rebecca grows odder and palpably more conflictual as it grows. But then it deflates. It isn’t boring — until it is. The pulse of the story’s pungent melodrama grows weak, right when the movie ought to start knocking our socks off with revelation after revelation.
Wheatley’s film never makes the uncanny, spectral leap into the psychological dilemma at this story’s center. And it really is a dilemma. The mystery of Mrs. de Winter’s death is relevant to the arc of this story. If it were all that was at stake here, this movie’s turn toward exposition and explanation toward the end would prove more satisfying. Mystery solved. Bang the gavel: case closed.
But devotion — that pure, blinding, insatiable, unending form of love that verges on utter possession — is the real heart of this story. It is what makes Rebecca, in its finer forms, so eerie. And this is where Wheatley stumbles. He gives us the story, he populates it handsomely, and then he loses the real psychological thread, reverting instead to the easier satisfaction of questions answered. Is inexplicable (to say nothing of sexually charged) attachment a question that really has an easily definable answer? The last stretch of the movie — and because of this, Rebecca as a whole — proves tedious, in the end, for insisting so.