If you haven’t seen the classic version of Rebecca, you might be entertained by this latest melodramatic take. But that 1940 film starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and it won an Oscar for Best Picture. This new version won’t be up for any awards. It stars Lily James (Baby Driver, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) as the young wife who is never named and Armie Hammer (Call Me by Your Name, On the Basis of Sex) as her husband Maxim, the haunted widower-owner of the storied Manderley estate. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Gosford Park) takes on the role of the sinister Mrs. Danvers. And it’s a fairly plodding take on what should be an absorbing psychological drama.
I went to the trouble of reading the book by Daphne Du Maurier when I heard about this remake. And it’s a great read! In it the character of Mrs. de Winter, since that’s the only name she gets, is much younger than Maxim. She’s shy and naive and filled with anxiety. But the character in the movie is too old (Lily is just three years younger than Armie) and feels much more modern than the depression-era woman she’s playing. And their relationship falls together too easily. Perhaps my expectations from the previous film and the book colored my perception, but the bigger problem is that there is no build in the psychological game that is being played by Mrs. Danvers once the couple who meet cute in Monte Carlo marry and arrive home to the mansion.
As the story goes, Rebecca’s, the first Mrs. de Winter’s, presence is felt everywhere in the house. Her bedroom is a shrine. Her writing desk still has all her notes. The other servants all miss her. And Mrs. Danvers doesn’t let the new wifey forget that the first was beautiful and smart and charismatic, and that she’ll never live up to her. The fact that she was working as a “ladies companion” when she met Maxim is also a strike against her. And Danvers is determined to sabotage their relationship and rid the house of her.
In the hands of a different director, maybe a new take would work, but Rebecca can’t seem to find its footing. The chemistry between James and Hammer isn’t really there. Kristin Scott Thomas’s Danvers is the most interesting person in the film, and the story wanders around too much. (There are even a couple of “what happened there?” plot mysteries.) The house is beautiful and the costuming fun, but I highly suggest you step back from the television and read the book. Sadly the original film is nowhere to be streamed.
It’s currently streaming on Netflix, if you must see it.