There was never going to be a single universe in which Ben Wheatley‘s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic romance Rebecca would outclass or cause people — especially film critics — to forget about and bin the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film, for which the Master of Suspense would receive his only Best Picture Oscar over the course of his entire career. Prior to watching this take on the story, I’d never seen Hitchcock’s adaptation, and I highly don’t recommend going back and checking it out if you’re rusty, especially after watching Wheatley’s film. Not because the latter is bad — indeed, it’s excellent, being witty, creepy, handsomely acted in equal measure, much as every other standout Hitch film — but because there’s really no point in comparing the two, given that the outcome will always be the same, and are intended for different audiences. We try not to compare the Craigie Burger to a Big Mac, knowing that they serve different appetites and audiences, even if one is clearly “better,” and I love both, depending on the circumstances. It could have been great, after all: Wheatley is an incredibly talented filmmaker, and his instincts have often been right on the money, at least for my particular palette. What I was hoping for was the kind of ultra-modern-yet-period, revisionist-yet-faithful type of adaptation that we’d gotten a few years earlier from Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, which is about as successful as it gets as far as I’m concerned, but, alas, this Rebecca is a particularly dull two hours, one that will probably alienate classic viewers, familiar with du Maurier’s work or Hitchcock’s adaptation, while boring new ones to tears.
Rebecca, of course, concerns the mysteries surround the death of the first Mrs. De Winter, whose first name graces the title, as the second — hereby referred to as Mrs. De Winter (Lily James), given that du Maurier never named her protagonist — comes to live at Manderlay, the estate that the dearly departed shared with her husband Maxim (Armie Hammer), a wealthy high-society type who romances the considerably-lower-on-the-totem-pole young woman while vacationing in Monte Carlo. Mrs. de Winter finds herself immediately at odds with the estate’s housekeeper, the stiff and proper Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), who was particularly close to Rebecca before her untimely drowning after a fight with her husband. But hints of foul play surround her disappearance, and, ultimately, Mrs. de Winter will have to discover the truth about her husband’s temper and his dead wife’s character, and also contend with the machinations and scheming of Danvers, who may not have her best interests at heart. It’s a lot less concise than that, and the film stretches out over the two-hour mark, which, given that it’s on Netflix, may cause the attention spans of even the most dedicated viewer to drift towards Twitter or a news alert on their phones.
For the most part, the script, penned by Jane Goldman, is faithful to du Maurier’s novel, though there are a number of late-breaking changes designed to wrap the film up in a tidier fashion. The new fate of Danvers — along with a post-hoc explanation for her actions over the course of the film — is a not-particularly-interesting attempt to make implied subtext overt, but otherwise, it’s generally inoffensive, and it attempts to set right some of the havoc the Hays Code wrecked on Hitchcock’s take, restoring a sort of moral griminess that film wasn’t totally allowed to possess. Her dialogue is serviceable, though it lacks humor or personality, and the cast does their best to bring it to life, with one heavy caveat. Scott-Thomas is icy and interesting enough, Ann Dowd and Sam Riley are fun in the brief moments that they show up in, and James is sturdy and believable as Mrs. de Winter, but Hammer is egregiously miscast here, and his presence nearly sinks the entire film. Why he was chosen for the role, well, I’ll never quite understand — he isn’t mysterious enough to entice us along with James and eventually suspect his foul play in the film’s central mystery, and the whole film doesn’t work if he isn’t. It reminded me a lot of the kind of uninteresting leads he used to play following The Social Network but before he teamed up with Wheatley for Free Fire, which, alongside Call Me By Your Name, helped to transform his career into something a hell of a lot weirder than it was.
But one can’t truly blame Hammer alone for this Rebecca‘s failures, and it’s Wheatley whose lifeless direction really causes the film to falter. It doesn’t just suffer in comparison to other adaptations of the novel: In fact, it falls short of practically every other film the director has made. I think it really just comes down to his sensibility as a director and genre stylist being an incredibly poor fit for a glitzy gothic romance like this, where, unless one were to invent an entirely different story or style and have it be a “loose” adaptation, you’d find him clawing against the sides of his cage like he is here. Wheatley’s aesthetic style favors the grimy and bloody, and his narratives work best with a high concept logline pursued to its logical (or blissfully illogical) ends: it was why he was such a good fit for High Rise, as Ballard supplied him with an easy-to-grok narrative full of symbolism and rigid structure that allowed him to play around with ’70s aesthetics and exaggerated, fascinating violence in equal measure. So, naturally, when you drop him into period propriety with it sturdy manners and repression, free of the things he typically likes to explore, it makes sense that he would turn out a bland, lifeless product, full of empty “beauty” in its bland and expensive settings and the sexless “romance” between our leads as if Masterpiece Theatre tried to hire the producers of Riverdale for a one-off adaptation of Our Town during a particularly vital pledge drive.
Again, that’s not to say that an adaptation of Rebecca couldn’t work in this day and age, given that one of the very best films of the last decade, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, owes a hefty debt to du Maurier’s classic tale (and, indeed, Lesley Manville’s performance in that film seems to have influenced Scott Thomas’s take on Mrs. Danvers here). But it would have required at the very, very least, a different leading man, and, ideally, a different director, who could have perhaps flourished with this story’s aesthetic and tone. As such, it’s just a colossal misfire, one that will most likely fly under the radar for most people given its burial on Netflix, and hopefully one that will be promptly forgotten in due time as well.