One of the most iconic lines in literature is the opening of Rebecca, as Mrs de Winter utters “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, immediately gripping you into the story and in only nine words builds up a mystery and sense of wonder around the house of Manderley and the story of Mr and Mrs de Winter. That same line is uttered by Mrs de Winter (Lily James) at the start of this film, and I was struck with that same feeling, and a sense of hope that Rebecca (2020) could defy the odds and be a unique classic. I was wrong.
Rebecca is the story of a young woman who marries a fascinating widower, only to find out that she must live in the shadow of his former wife, Rebecca, who died mysteriously years earlier. The young wife must come to grips with the terrible secret of her handsome, cold husband, Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer). She must also deal with the jealous, obsessed Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, who will not accept her as the mistress of the house.
The original novel by Daphne du Maurier is far from packed full of explicit sex, but the story has always had a powerful erotic tension running through it, and especially when it comes to the stories of Rebecca’s life, there is almost a level of kink hinted at. This plays into the tension and mystery, and adds to the psychological terror the second Mrs de Winter feels as she is always trying to live up to impossible expectations of Rebecca, whether sexual or societal. However, this is almost entirely absent here, and therefore leaves Mrs de Winter’s woes lacking in the same impact they should possess.
When it comes to the actors, no one does a particularly bad job but it is also a shame that no one is able to truly stand out with a memorable performance. Lily James and Armie Hammer are cast in the crucial lead roles, and this is the complete opposite of what I would usually say, but the lack of age gap between the two actors actually has a negative impact here. Maxim de Winter being significantly older, as well as being much richer than the second Mrs de Winter, adds that extra power dynamic into the relationship that makes Mrs de Winter feel even more vulnerable and completely reliant on Maxim. Lily James and Armie Hammer are only a few years apart and therefore feel much more like equals, which doesn’t help for this specific story dynamic.
As for the performances themselves, Lily James does an admirable job in what is a tough role as the second Mrs de Winter, and despite definitely adding more of an edge and fight to the role, she does still maintain the initial naivety and self-doubt. In many of her past roles, James has shown a really unique charm and is one of the most engaging screen presences of recent times, but these qualities simply aren’t something she can use in this role, so she is slightly limited. Kristen Scott Thomas probably gives the stand out performance, in by far the film’s best role, Mrs Danvers. She is slightly more restrained than the iconic version in Hitchcock’s original, and at times is almost genuine enough that you buy in to why Mrs de Winter would change her mind and actually trust her, which is a feeling I never got from the 1940 version. Despite this, there is also a very definite chilling edge to her and a longing for her lost love of Rebecca, and this love is made more explicit here. It is very clear Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca and that adds depth to her extreme actions.
The only performance that doesn’t work at all here is Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter. Hammer is stilted, unconvincing, and at times quite frustrating in this role, and even though it seems almost unfair to compare someone like Armie Hammer to the great Laurence Olivier, that is who he will inevitably be put side to side with, and it is simply a pale imitation. Despite him being tall and conventionally handsome, people need to stop convincing Hammer he is a leading man, or that he is a particularly interesting actor at all.
The more memorable aspects of the film, whether this is for positive or negative reasons, is the production and costume design. The film, especially in the opening ‘holiday’ section, is incredibly lavish and beautiful to look at, and there is no denying the costumes leave an impression. Even though it seems odd that someone as rich as Maxim de Winter only apparently owns one suit, an entirely bright yellow one at that, it certainly sticks in your mind and feels like a huge contrast when we head to the suitably moody Manderley, smartly giving the impression that Maxim is using this holiday as a true escape from his life, his past, and who he really is.
As for the film’s director Ben Wheatley, the man responsible for very genre fare like High-Rise (2015) and Free Fire (2016), it is almost unimaginable that he directed this movie. It has almost none of his specific touch, and even though he has said that he specifically made the movie to feel that way, that doesn’t stop it being a mistake because what we get instead is a hollow and almost cosplay version of Rebecca. If Wheatley had really zoned in on the psychological terror, or on gothic horror, or on romance, he could’ve made the film stand on its own, but he instead just throws it all in to the mix in a half-hearted way.
Overall, it is particularly frustrating that this isn’t an aggressively bad movie, it is simply okay, and that is the worst thing it could’ve been. Tackling an iconic novel, especially when the last film adaptation was a best picture winning Hitchcock classic, is never an easy task, but the one thing you simply cannot do is make it ordinary. You must swing for the fences, and this film fails to do that.