Rebecca movie review: Daphne du Maurier's Gothic romance gets a glossy makeover from Ben Wheatley, Netflix

There is nothing fresh, never mind radical, in Ben Wheatley's retelling.

Prahlad Srihari October 22, 2020 10:14:09 IST

2/5

“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” This reflection from the nameless protagonist and narrator of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca comes in its opening chapters. It also appears in not so many words in a new film adaptation of the book. Indeed, if you think about it, she could very well be talking about the purpose of adaptations or retellings. For what are they if not uncorked bottles of nostalgia? A wish to re-experience a cherished memory, oftentimes tweaked to fit modern sensibilities. Only some do fade (think Gone with the Wind), and some like Ben Wheatley's new adaptation of Rebecca are stale on arrival.

Rebecca movie review Daphne du Mauriers Gothic romance gets a glossy makeover from Ben Wheatley Netflix

Lily James as Mrs de Winter

The odds were always stacked against Wheatley. Oddly in fact, he finds himself in a similar position as the new Mrs de Winter, both unable to escape the shadow of their hallowed predecessors. Just like the memory of Rebecca haunts the new Mrs de Winter, the legacy of the Alfred Hitchcock classic haunts the new adaptation. Just as Mrs Danvers undermines the new Mrs de Winter, the critics among us will (sadly but inevitably) judge Wheatley's take to be far inferior to Hitchcock's. But unlike Mrs Danvers, I take no great pleasure in it. 

When it comes to adaptations, presentation becomes as important as, if not more than, the story. For example, Hitchcock saw Rebecca as a psychological thriller. Accordingly, he created a new visual language in which shadows take on the same importance as characters. Despite his established horror cred, Wheatley plays against type to give us a Gothic romance that is right out of old-school Tinseltown.

It is a fairly literal reading of the novel, but the magic gets lost in the colourful but antiseptic translation.

Wheatley plunges the viewers into sun-kissed Monte Carlo, where our nameless protagonist is living the fairy-tale life. It is quite fitting that she is played by Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Yesterday), whose bright-eyed innocence seems crystallised as in a magic spell. She meets a wealthy aristocrat named Maxim de Winter, they fall in love, and within a week, he proposes to her in period-appropriate fashion: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” Wooed by his charm and Armie Hammer face, the naïve young woman that she is says yes, unaware of the nightmare that lies in wait in his ancestral estate of Manderley.

Rebecca movie review Daphne du Mauriers Gothic romance gets a glossy makeover from Ben Wheatley Netflix

Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca

The ghost of his former wife Rebecca has cast a long shadow on Manderley. On arrival at the mansion following a hasty wedding and honeymoon, Max becomes a different man altogether: a brooding sleepwalker prone to outbursts. With scornful side-eyes, the staff make the new Mrs de Winter feel like an intruder in her own home. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers seems especially hell-bent on destroying their marriage, and the young bride’s self-esteem with it. Kristin Scott Thomas’s piercing eyes and each seemingly amiable but lacerating comment (“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d been a ladies’ maid”) crush the poor girl into submission.

In Wheatley's retelling, Manderley often seems more alive than the characters in it. It is like a physical extension that arose straight from the unconconscious, in perfect harmony with the psychoanalytic subtext that permeates Du Maurier's novel. An oppressive environment whose décor and furnishings of punishing elegance, much like Rebecca herself, overwhelms the new bride. Each detail is a symbol of a suffocating past. The heavy curtains and soaring walls shield the mansion from outsiders. Mirrors, usually symbols of vanity, become one of insecurity. Creeping vines burst from the floor below, and pull her underground in a nightmare. Even a shattered porcelain becomes an ominous sign of the rupturing relationship between the newlyweds.

Rebecca movie review Daphne du Mauriers Gothic romance gets a glossy makeover from Ben Wheatley Netflix

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers

As Max's sister admits, Rebecca was "irresistible to everybody: the men, women, children, animals. Us mere mortals couldn't hope to compete." So, Manderley becomes a prison of expectations to the new Mrs de Winter, a prison inhabiting the ghost of lovers past. The initial R monogrammed on Rebecca's belongings, the life that Mrs Danvers attributes to her bedroom kept intact like it were a shrine, and the boundless passion she still has for her former mistress make Rebecca a tangible presence even in death. Though her ghost never materialises, she is undoubtedly the central figure around whom the story revolves. The camera becomes a surrogate for her ghost, creeping across a maze of endless hallways and rooms. A flock of birds gliding above the seaside mansion, and the waves crashing against the rocks on the shoreline give a pronounced feeling of impending doom. Often jarringly at odds with these visuals is Clint Mansell's music, which does not seamlessly bleed into Manderley's atmosphere and diminishes our emotional response to what we are seeing.

Rebecca movie review Daphne du Mauriers Gothic romance gets a glossy makeover from Ben Wheatley Netflix

A still from Rebecca

Gaslighting Mrs de Winter at every turn, Mrs Danvers is vicious as ever. She encourages the young woman to wear the same dress to a masquerade ball as Rebecca did (only to perturb Max), and almost convinces her to jump off the window to her death. Back in 1940, the Hays Code mandated a disciplining of characters who acted in ways Hollywood gatekeepers deemed morally corrupt. In the book, Mrs Danvers simply disappears. In Hitchcock's film, she is killed in the fire that engulfs Manderley. Her villainy aside, her queer coding meant she could not make it past the credits. I expected Wheatley to take an approach that updates the text to the idiom of today: perhaps tell the story through Mrs Danvers' point-of-view, and turn some of the subtext into text.

But there is nothing fresh, never mind radical, in his retelling. For those already familiar with the story, the whole thing unfolds without a narrative pulse to its resolution.

When the project was announced back in 2018, I thought Wheatley was a bit of an odd choice for it. Undoubtedly, he was one of the breakout talentsof 2010, part of the next generation redefining genre filmmaking. His debut feature Down Terrace (2009) was a solid calling card, and an overture to one of the decade's best horror offerings in Kill List (2011). Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England (2013) proved he could skilfully sauté horror in humour and history, adding more weight to his indie credentials. High-Rise (2015) was a ballsy adaptation that stood on its own merit, and in fact, deepened my appreciation for the JG Ballard novel. Free Fire (2016) was a bit of a trial to see if he could parlay that indie success into a Netflix-bankable filmmaker. But as the over-designed misfire that is Rebecca now proves, the leap to a bigger canvas is never easy. Often, all we get is an empty shell of a movie, covered up in candy-coating.

Rebecca is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: **

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