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Review in a nutshell: Nice to look at, but feels unsatisfying.
- Movie synopsis
- Would I recommend you watch it?
- Full review of Rebecca (with spoilers)
- Where to watch Rebecca
A naive, young woman of humble beginnings marries above her class and has to deal with her secretive, older husband, and the overwhelming shadow of his dead wife — cast in part by the forboding Mrs. Danvers, housekeeper of his opulent estate, Manderley, and ultimate no. 1 fan of the first Mrs. de Winter. Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name.
Would I recommend you watch it?
Yes, if you like Lily James and Armie Hammer for how pretty they look. They don’t have much chemistry though, especially towards the latter half of the movie.
If not, it’s completely up to you whether you want to watch it or not. It’s not a bad film, but it could be better.
Or continue reading for a full review with spoilers.
Full review of Rebecca (with spoilers)
Despite never having watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca made in 1940, itself an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel, I was excited when I heard it was being remade with Lily James and Armie Hammer. They’re beautiful people whom I thought would make a good pair, and the story sounded intriguing enough that I wanted to find out exactly what happened.
(Though not enough to make myself sit down and watch Alfred Hitchcock’s classic previously, because, well, it never became high enough on my list of priorities.)
After watching it though, I must say this new adaptation doesn’t feel like it lives up to its promise.
Look, Lily James and Armie Hammer are gorgeous, and 90% of why I’m watching it. While they feel mismatched to me, I can chalk it up to the story, since the second Mrs de Winter is supposed to be young and naive, while Maxim de Winter is an older, rich man who goes into bouts of broodiness. Nevertheless, their whirlwind romance in the sunshine of the south of France is delightful to watch — passing clandestine notes to each other through the hotel staff and hiding their meetings from her nasty employer Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) who’s laid up in bed and seemingly unaware.
Also, the settings and costumes are lavish and lovely to look at, whether they’re in the bright, beach holiday mood of the French Riviera, or back at Manderley, which is all imposing and gothic stonework and opulent English manor. I feel it’s the one advantage it has over the older classic. While the black-and-white of Hitchcock’s version added to the mystery and suspense — a conscious stylistic choice, since they already had motion pictures in colour during that period — it wasn’t particularly interesting to my eye.
However, I wasn’t convinced that Maxim de Winter really fell in love with the protagonist. He certainly liked her, but love? With the hasty decision he had to make in two seconds when she presented him with her dilemma, it felt like he married her to help her out, since the condescending Mrs. Van Hopper wanted to squirrel her away to America, a place the protagonist didn’t want to go, to thwart her plans to see Maxim ever again and possibly marry above her station (and above Mrs. Van Hopper’s own status).
I’m not entirely sure why he fell in love with her too. Lily James’ character makes several faux pas, like looking through the dashboard compartment of Maxim’s car and lingering on a book of love poems that his first wife gave him. Maxim looked upset when he saw her do that, yet he still asked her out the next day. I guess he really wanted some company?
By the way, Maxim’s first wife Rebecca de Winter looms so large in the story that Daphne du Maurier named the novel after her, while the protagonist, the second Mrs. de Winter, is never named. Which makes it very awkward to refer to Lily James’ character in this review without overusing “she/her” pronouns.
And of course, as the couple got more uncommunicative as the movie went on, and misunderstandings arose, they seemed more like strangers living with each other than husband-and-wife, since Maxim refuses to talk about Rebecca, or about what’s plaguing him, or even the fact that he sleepwalks. He may as well be a perfect stranger.
All these things are built into the plot so readers can feel her same doubt when Mrs. Danvers gaslights her and casts aspersions on her marriage to Maxim, so I don’t know if I can blame the actors. But I do know that once their chemistry was lost, they never truly regained it, even after the truth was revealed that no, Maxim wasn’t brooding over how much he missed his beloved first wife; he was brooding because he felt guilty for killing his hated first wife, even though Rebecca had goaded him into doing it.
Lily James has greater agency in this movie though, and plays a more active role in freeing her husband towards the end of the movie. However, she also has a way of running in the movie — or more accurately, scrambling — that seems entirely undignified. Whether she’s scrambling upstairs and sobbing after her costume fiasco at the masquerade ball, or scrambling around in the doctor’s office looking for Rebecca’s medical records, she looked like a hysterical teenager in those moments. I’m not fond of that acting choice.
I watched Hitchcock’s version right after I finished this so I could see what the differences are. The older version has Joan Fontaine as a timid, subservient wife who’s afraid of mis-stepping at every turn, and whose only desire is to please her husband, and therefore apologises whenever he looks unhappy. Which is often, since he broods a lot. And he’s also rather condescending. But I suppose it was a product of its time.
Judith Anderson is much praised for her creepy portrayal of Mrs. Danvers, but Kristen Scott Thomas is pretty good too. She brings a different, more manipulative take to Mrs. Danvers, even helping Rebecca’s cousin and lover, Jack Favell (Sam Riley), to frame Maxim for obstructing justice by paying Jack to keep his mouth shut about Rebecca’s intentions, though Jack was the one who approached him for money. And it’s revealed that this Mrs. Danvers knew about Rebecca’s affairs all along, while the 1940 version seemed to have no idea that Rebecca and Maxim de Winter’s marriage wasn’t the absolute fairytale everyone thought it was.
Her actions to render Maxim’s new bride emotionally frail and almost ready to kill herself therefore seem more like a byproduct of her wanting revenge on Maxim for killing Rebecca; though it’s clear she still very much hates the second Mrs. de Winter for being there and taking Rebecca’s place. Whereas Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers does it just because she’s utterly devoted to the memory of Rebecca and hates her replacement. She only turns on Maxim de Winter when she found out, while being interrogated by the police, that he’s suspected of Rebecca’s murder.
Though serviceable in most parts, the Netflix adaptation definitely botched the ending. They should have ended the film with Mrs. Danvers jumping off the cliff. Instead, there was an abrupt mood switch to Lily James waking up from a nightmare of the past, and then the de Winters in Cairo finding a happily ever after despite all they’ve been through, which for viewers, ended barely a minute ago.
I kind of understand where they’re coming from with that ending. The filmmakers are billing this new adaptation as more of a love story, and we’ve just seen the unnamed protagonist free her husband despite the machinations of Jack Favell, Mrs. Danvers, and Rebecca from beyond the grave. To end the movie in a hopeful manner for the couple would achieve their aims of refocusing on their love story.
However, I don’t think they earned this ending, because as I mentioned previously, once they lost whatever chemistry they had midway through the movie, I don’t think they regained it. I don’t “feel the love”, so to speak.
The ending of the book doesn’t do that. It remains firmly in the realm of the psychological thriller — and ends with the horror of the couple realising from a distance that Manderley was burning. Hitchcock’s classic goes one further, brilliant step in Mrs. Danvers in the fiery inferno of Rebecca’s room after setting it alight, staring at the camera with madness in her eyes, before the roof comes crashing down on her. The camera then pans to and lingers on Rebecca’s silk negligee on her pillow, as the flames lick up the bedspread and envelope it.
Perhaps in an attempt to stave off comparisons to the older classic, which would have been enormously difficult to live up to even without the distinction of being the only one of Hitchcock’s films to win a Best Picture Oscar, director Ben Wheatley says they’re not “remaking” it, rather, they’re making another adaptation of the book. But to-ma-to, to-mah-to, what’s the diff? Comparisons will occur anyway. And this one feels like it missed the mark, in a way that this reviewer explains much better than I do.
But it’s still watchable. Perfectly watchable. Just not great.
(By the way, I just found out there’s also a 1997 British miniseries adaptation with Charles Dance — aka Tywin Lannister — as Maxim de Winter and the late Diana Rigg — aka Lady Olenna Tyrell — as Mrs. Danvers! I’m not going to watch it, but I thought you should know.)
Where to watch Rebecca (2020)
Streaming services: Rebecca (2020) is on Netflix everywhere.
Where to watch Rebecca (1940)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca appears to be available on YouTube. Should it ever be taken down for copyright issues, this guide on how to find specific movies and watch them online legally, wherever you are, may prove useful.