New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. Kerry Brown/Netflix

‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.

Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.

First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.

Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.

This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?

Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.

Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.

The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.

[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions”

  1. I’ve never seen Rebecca. Maybe I’ll watch Hitchcock’s version on Halloween. I just bumped into the NPR critique of the remake while looking for information on the 1940 version. Suffice it to say, NPR agrees with you.

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    1. This was one of the anticipated films I’d wanted to see, and like. Wrote about it before here. I was disappointed it didn’t work out as well as I’d expected, except for KST. We don’t have NPR here, so don’t know what they’ve said, but thanks for the affirmation. If you can’t find Hitchcock’s adaptation, reading the original source material by Daphne du Maurier would be an apt Halloween social distancing activity. I think you’ll enjoy it. BTW, do you remember Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’? It’s by du Maurier too.

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    1. The first act actually is the more enjoyable part for me, at least it’s appealing aesthetically. As for the ‘sexing up’, I think Wheatley is being very restrained here. The dynamics is expected to change once the casting is decided on Hammer. But then into the second act, even that disintegrates once they enter Manderley. You’d be surprised, using your words, the ‘sexing up’ is shifted as the third act comes up, at least by implication and in words. The altered ending has done a disservice to du Maurier’s classic work.

      And I agree, Stanley Kowalski came to mind. I mentioned it in a previous post.

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    1. Yes, maybe rereading du Maurier or head to a Hitchcock film would be a timely thing to do. You know Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is another adaptation of du Maurier’s book too.

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    2. If you have some hours to spare esp. when you’ve Netflix already, maybe this one is a good topic for discussion when you meet friends and readers online. 🙂

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  2. Oh that ending sounds all wrong. Not just on a moral point of view, but on a character level. If the book had ended like that, it wouldn’t have been so memorably frightening.

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    1. I always assert that any stand-alone cinematic adaptation should be judged on its own, and not be compared to the dot with the literary work. However, the main crux and maybe the ending also need to be compatible with the source material. You’ve a good point here: “if it had ended like that, it wouldn’t have been so memorably frightening.”

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  3. Interesting. I haven’t seen it yet — it’s on my watch list. And I’ll probably watch but it may be one of those watch while multitasking things! Kristen Scott Thomas is always fabulous so I ‘m looking forward to that.

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  4. An interesting post and I agree with your first impressions. I wanted to see this film only for Scott Thomas’s performance because I am very curious to see her in this role, but I don’t think I will even bother now. I didn’t know they have changed the ending. But then, Hitchcock changed the ending of the book too to comply with “moral standards” in the then cinematic code. You rightly point out about Hitchcock’s subtlety, and that is why I didn’t want to see the new Rebecca. No one in the industry nowadays seems to possess his level of nuance. Hitchcock didn’t even need decorations and elaborate cinematography on which so many films nowadays rely. He created his own atmosphere out of nothing – and he could even make one in a cardboard box, I bet.

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    1. There are certainly more tricks in the bag for directors nowadays. Indeed, Wheatley did use some fantasized sequences with CGI in the middle part of the movie. But overall, his treatment is basically quite traditional, and that’s where he couldn’t elicit viewers’ engagement – well, mine at least. Hitchcock had his use of cinematography, but it’s the skill of combining the camera, together with lighting, editing, to playing tricks on his viewers. He’s the specialist of such ‘trickery’, and the master in eliciting psychological reactions. ‘Psycho’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Suspicion’ come to mind readily. BTW, his Rebecca back in 1941 won two Oscars, Best Picture and Best Cinematography.

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  5. Enjoyed your review. Don’t think I will watch it though. I love the novel so much and I just can’t picture Lily James as the first Mrs De Winter who is supposed to be plain and shy and badly dressed!

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    1. The first Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca, was a glamorous socialite who often threw lavish parties. The new Mrs. De Winter, as her unnamed persona implies, is a nobody in terms of class or style. Maybe that’s why the costume designer dressed Lily James with such a wardrobe of casual wear, but which looks more like that in the 60’s or 70’s, not the Jazz age. Mind you, Lily James isn’t as bubbly as Lady Rose, she’s got that part right. But the director made her (not totally her fault I don’t think) into a character that’s too subdued and bland to make an impression.

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