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

Finally, Guernsey from Book to Screen

It was nine years ago that I posted a book review of The Guernsey Literary and the Potato Peel Pie Society, the post-WWII set, epistolary novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a book of letters between the writer Juliet Ashton and her publisher, and later the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is an impromptu excuse made up by quick-thinking Elizabeth to avoid arrest by German soldiers as she and her friends are caught walking home after curfew.

To prepare for German advances, residents on Guernsey evacuated their children and sent their young men to war. Later as the Channel Islands were under enemy occupation, the people were stripped of their freedom and had to endure hunger, casualties and disappearances of loved ones.

Here are some thoughts in my book review post:

“Despite the subject matters, readers will find the book witty and delightful. Authors Shaffer and Barrows have depicted a myriad of lively characters, charmingly joined in their humanity by their strengths and weaknesses.  Yes, we can also visualize the madness of war. But we’re relieved to see too that people can weather hardship much better when they have a common bond, here, in the reading and sharing of fine literary works.”

A few years ago I read that the NYT Bestseller would be turned into a movie and that Kate Winslet would play Juliet Ashton, and later, Rosamund Pike. And so we wait. Now we have Lily James, and I’m glad. She’s a younger Juliet, but her screen presence is always appealing, albeit the adaptation doesn’t give her much of a chance to shine as in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. She belongs in the singing and dancing limelight, maybe not unlike her character Lady Rose in Downton Abbey.

Lily James as Juliet Ashton (1).jpg

Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot from Downton) as Sydney, Juliet’s publisher, is a solid supportive figure. Surely what he wants is more books from her, but Sydney knows she can’t be forced to do anything she doesn’t want to. Nice play between the two, and some effective scenes as he tries to help Juliet dispel haunting war memories.

How do you turn letters into a movie? Director Mike Newell focused on storytelling and it worked. The helmer of Mona Lisa Smile (2003) and perhaps the more memorable, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), had chosen to depict the dramatic narratives in the letters rather than the actual reading and writing of them; the writing part can be done by another character, the typewriter.

There are fewer literary mentions in the movie, and the book club scenes are kept to a minimum but interesting. Don’t miss the one at the end when the credits roll. We hear the sound of the typewriter, remember Atonement? With just two hours for the movie, naturally a lot of the details are skimmed out. What’s left are the essentials, loss and love.

Kudos to Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley of Downton, of course, and many more), she leads all the way by holding the suspense, the reason for her pain. We see her expressive face conveys tensions and deep sadness. Viewers who have not read the book would find the movie a mystery slowly being revealed as Juliet investigates the Society’s history. I appreciate Wilton’s face, from which I can clearly see how the loss of loved ones can drag one down to mere existence and nothing more, if not for Kit (Florence Keen).

Joining the roles as Society members are veteran actor Tom Courtenay as Eben, Katherine Parkinson as Isola, and Kit Connor as Eli. The fine cast let us visualize the events of the book as experiences of real persons. This may well be the very reason why some hesitate to embrace movie adaptations of the literary. To the purists, the imageries and characters conjured up in their mind while reading reign supreme and they’d guard them with much possessiveness. In this case, however, I find the adaptation offers something that’s not in the book. I can see the restraints of the characters, the burden as keepers of secrets, their faces telling stories and then withholding some.

Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil from Downton) as Elizabeth is well cast, albeit not much time is spent on exploring her love story with the German soldier Christian (Nicolo Pasetti, limited appearance). The resolution to such a dilemma and its fallout will never be easy to find.

As for the love interests, or disinterest, Glen Powell aptly plays the rich American Mark Reynolds. Recognize him from Hidden Figure? He’s John Glenn there. Here, he’s the high flying socialite publisher. After Guernsey, Juliet has to be frank with him, and with much apology, returns his engagement ring. After just a short exchange, he gets up from the table, says goodbye and walks away, only to return quickly to pluck the champaign bottle from the ice bucket before he leaves for good. Just spot-on. Is that in the book?

True love belongs to Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones) who begins it all with his letter to a name and address written on a book he happens to stumble upon. The moment he encounters Juliet as she sets foot on Guernsey, his fate is sealed. Dawsey is good at restraints, until he can’t hold it anymore at the end. The setting may be different but who gets to pop the question remains true to the book.

A movie as well can offer the scenery which the book can’t. But then again, imagination may still be needed as the shooting location is not actually Guernsey Island but North Devon. Click on the link to check it out.

What doesn’t need imagination is also my favourite scene: Dawsey’s carving of the juicy roasted pig.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is on Netflix.