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

Do We Need A Rebecca Remake? Another Grapes of Wrath?

In a previous post Summer Reading and Future Viewing I listed some upcoming movie adaptations of literary works, among them are Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, incidentally both are Steven Spielberg’s projects.

The earlier adaptations of these two titles had since become classics. Released in 1940, both films shared the limelight in the 1941 Academy Awards. Rebecca won Best Picture and Best Cinematography while John Ford won Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, and Best Supporting Actress went to Jane Darwell as Ma Joad.

From the comments in that post, it’s interesting to see the ripples from loyal fans of these two classic films. They want to say no thank-you to Mr. Spielberg. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter had left an indelible mark in their movie memories which no one else can replace, nor the stern and creepy Mrs. Denvar. Alfred Hitchcock would have been most pleased.

Joan Fontaine & Laurence OlivierLikewise, Henry Fonda owned the role of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. And, who can match Jane Darwell as the Joad family pillar, Ma, who won an Oscar Best Supporting Actress for her performance.

Family Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

Fond memories aside, a remake could reap some benefits if placed in the right hands. The Great Gatsby is a good example, and it’s not even in perfect hands. But we’ve all witnessed the fanfare, just the buzz of a major movie production can do much to turn a school text into a bestseller.

With the first trailer of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation released in April, The Great Gatsby had sold more copies than Fitzgerald could ever have imagined. The hype had sent it to the top of Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s sales in both print and eBooks. The title on Kindle had outsold all its paperback. And this even before the movie was released in May. BTW, The book sold less than 25,000 in Fitzgerald’s life time, and he considered himself a failure. If he had known of the Gatsby ripples and splashes half a century later, he would have died a happier man.

A movie adaptation today can be the best promotion for a literary work. If the movie is done well, so much the better. If it’s not, viewers would at least be driven to seek the truth. Is the book that bad? Hopefully they would read to find out. These two new adaptations being produced by Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks could mean a certain level of standard.

Rebecca Movie PosterThe Grapes of Wrath PosterFor both Rebecca and The Grapes of Wrath, no big screen adaptations had been done since their 1940 productions, so a contemporary remake can be an appealing venture. A modern day take on an old story can refresh it for a new generation of viewers. Come to think of it, how many of today’s Twilight audience have seen Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine on screen, big or small? Or even heard of them? Alfred Hitchcock would be more well known among viewers today, but probably because of Psycho rather than Rebecca.

A genre like Rebecca is popular nowadays… Suspense à la romance with a touch of Gothic noir. Manderley can be an interesting set to view with modern cinematic rendering and technology. What more, the latest is that Dreamworks has hired Danish writer/director Nikolaj Arcel to helm the new version. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, then think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Arcel is co-writer of that original Danish screenplay. You see, he doesn’t need to walk in Hitchcock’s shadow. He only needs to stalk to his own tune. It will be interesting to see his interpretation of du Maurier’s book.

As for The Grapes of Wrath, with its depictions of poverty, the plight of the migrant workers, social and economic disparity, Steinbeck’s 1939 Depression era classic can be a timely and relevant film today. We won’t get back the authentic view of the drought-cracked landscape from Oklahoma (the film was made just one year after the book was published) and follow the Joad family’s beat-up truck sputtering on Route 66, leaving deprivation behind to press on towards a land of elusive dreams, California. I can see the new version inundated with CGI’s fabricating the exact opposite of what we see in The Great Gatsby. But Steinbeck’s story can and should remain intact, regardless of the styling, for its timelessness.

Further, remakes don’t have to be exact modern replicas of their older cinematic versions. Actually, better that they break away from previous adaptations to offer a fresh look, a relevant take for today’s viewers, and entertain with some present-day nuances and humor. An excellent example is the recent Shakespearean remake of Much Ado About Nothing by Joss Whedon, shot in his own Santa Monica home with swimming pool, stuffed toys, wine glasses and smart phones.

Let’s release our hold on these two classic films and come back to the future. I’m most curious to see the new adaptations. Who do you think are the best pair to play Maxim and the young and innocent Mrs. De Winter? My choice would be Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. What about Tom and Ma Joad for The Grapes of Wrath?


Some updates on book to film:

Ben Stiller directs and stars in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty based on the famous short story by James Thurber. The film will be the Centerpiece Gala at the NYFF later this fall and with that, Oscar buzz.

Another classic to be adapted will be Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Mia Wasikowska will transform from Jane Eyre to Emma Bovary. Paul Giamatti also in. Here’s the link to IMDb’s page.