"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
And so begins one of the greatest British novels of the 20th century. Since its publication in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic tale of mystery and passion has captured the hearts of readers. Obviously there is nothing quite like reading the original book and feeling it in your soul, but with this latest version of Rebecca, director Ben Wheatley comes pretty darn close.
A young woman working in Monte Carlo as a lady’s companion (Lily James) meets the rich, dashing, and mysterious Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and the two marry after a whirlwind romance. After settling down in the family estate of Manderley strange things begin to happen - there is the behaviour of housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the lingering memory of Rebecca - the first Mrs. de Winter who does not feel truly gone.
There is a prevailing tension to Rebecca, even in those early sun-drenched scenes in Monte Carlo and the fever of the unnamed protagonist’s first love. Nightmares, sleep walking, swirling murmurations of birds that herald ill happenings. You have a sense there is something not quite right here and it builds throughout. It does get very dramatic, and some would say it veers into melodrama in the third act, but if anything I think that brings it closer to those Gothic literary roots. It means that despite sounding like an initially odd choice with his past in the strange and surreal rather than the romantic, Ben Wheatley’s touch suits the material to a T.
The lush production design is a dream come true. It’s a cliché in a film like this to say that the house is a character in itself, but for Manderley that is entirely necessary as it is the linchpin for all that has gone before and is now happening to the characters. From the historical grand entrance to the Art Deco sharp mirrors and cold colours of Rebecca’s former rooms kept in pristine neatness by Mrs Danvers, everything looks perfect. The natural scenery, especially the rocky Cornish coastline, is just right too. Du Maurier’s prose descriptions are particularly vivid, and it’s nice to see that translated to screen. This is expounded by Clint Mansell’s score, which while beautiful and at times haunting, adds a few folk motifs which feel oddly appropriate given the emphasis on nature in the film.
The cast is an aspect I was a little sceptical about going in, I will admire. I thought Armie Hammer was a bit too charming to pull off the damaged and at times cold Maxim, and Lily James too mature to be the fragile and uncertain second Mrs de Winter. Thankfully, I was wrong because what these actors do, as well as having great chemistry, is turn these characters into real people. Yes, there is all the necessary drama and the feeling of wanting to shake these two and tell them: “Would you please just sit down and have an actual conversation about all this,” but it doesn’t feel as contrived here as it does at times in the novel.
I also believe there is a connection and love between the two. Hammer’s Maxim is someone that, like our heroine, you almost immediately fall for. You get the impression of someone who wants to look to the future but is so weighed down by the past and traditional expectations. He also looks very fine in the period suits as well, which bodes well for him staying in the 1930s setting in Kenneth Branaugh’s Death on the Nile. Lily James has the youthful naiveté, wide eyes and sweetness, but has a bit more backbone than her literary counterpart where it matters. The narrator of the book is someone that doesn’t make things happen so much as things happen to her, and while that can work in a well-written story, especially when it’s solely from that character’s point of view, in film you need to see something a bit more proactive. The dynamic between the two is one that we see grow and change, and even see flipped, particularly when the pair get to Manderley. The film’s script, written partially by Jane Goldman who is no stranger to bringing new elements to the familiar, is the right balance between faithfulness to the source material without being constrained by it.
Mrs Danvers is another thing that, like Manderley, is a key aspect of the story - if she isn’t quite right then everything falls apart, and I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job than Kristin Scott Thomas. She is cold, ever-present, fanatically devoted to Rebecca and her memory, and capable of horrible manipulation. Like a little devil on the second Mrs de Winter’s shoulder, she plays on every insecurity the young woman has about not being right for Manderley or Maxim. Sam Riley is the other major supporting player in the story, and one I found interesting as Jack Favell. Part of this is because he is someone I would have thought of in the role of Maxim (although maybe part of that was a desire to see a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reunion with him and Lily James), but also because whilst his performance is fittingly sinister and makes you feel uncomfortable, there is something almost pitiable about him too. It’s something interesting that makes him more than just a very easy-to-write off one note character.
Creating a new adaptation of a well-loved novels difficult, but when the previous adaptation is one so well-known and equally loved as the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version it is nothing less than daunting. But the two films very much stand apart and on their own strengths. There may be a few visual call-backs to Hitchcock’s version that Wheatley sneaks in, but who can blame him for indulging in that?
Whilst the moments of over-wrought emotion and theatrical dramatics won’t be for everyone, I was exactly in the mood for the style and substance that Rebecca had to offer. The visuals dazzle, and the performances back it up, making it an enjoyable, and at times sexy, experience.
Rebecca is available to stream on Netflix from October 21.