Actually, there has been a lot of anticipation for a new take on the Daphne du Maurier novel “Rebecca.” The appropriately British film was released in mid October to select screens in England, but worldwide by Netflix a week later, a salve to those of us still steeling ourselves from a surprisingly deadly spike in Covid-19 cases across the U.S.
Du Maurier’s 1938 gothic romance which, by the way, has never been out of print, got its first film treatment with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It was the only Hitchcock film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar, and it’s interesting to watch it now and see the difference between this new effort and that of the old suspense master.
The screenplay, by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, is about a young woman working as a companion to a rich American spending part of the summer months on the Riviera, where she meets the handsome and wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. After a worldwind romance, he asks her to marry him and takes her back to his grand English estate, Manderley.
Lily James and Armie Hammer play the beautiful couple, and you know there is no couple more beautiful. You may remember James as Lady Rose on “Downton Abbey.” Hammer you would recognize from “Call Me By Your Name.” Their idylls on the Riviera come to a complete stop when they come home to Manderley. The mood is suffocating with the omni-present reminders of Maxim’s first wife, “Rebecca,” who came to a mysteriously sudden end. Rebecca, who was so beautiful. Rebecca, who could ride the wildest horses. Rebecca, who threw the most wonderful parties, especially the Manderley Ball, a costume affair that everyone who was anyone attended.
One could almost be led to believe that Maxim is still in love with his former wife. But mostly, all the attention is voiced by that termagant Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s housekeeper, who makes no bones about “who” actually runs Manderley. The new Mrs. De Winter’s youth and naivete prevent her from understanding that Mrs. Danvers’ unhealthy preoccupation with the late Mrs. De Winter isn’t just worship, but pathological.
Danvers not only keeps Rebecca’s room as it was when she was alive, down to her favorite nightgown folded gently on her bed, but even her hair remains in her brush. The youthful Mrs. De Winter is beginning to feel a bit inadequate. No good can come of Danvers encouraging her to bring back the ball. We can see that one coming by a mile.
I know Ben Wheatley was picked as director for “Rebecca” because of his previous work on British horror films. But I can’t help but feel that the incipient tension in the script could have been handled more gracefully by someone like David Fincher or perhaps French Canadian Denis Villeneuve. They wouldn’t have included a very loud pop song to play at different intervals during the film.
What Wheatley did do right was cast Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. No one can play a woman spurned like Scott Thomas. Actually, Scott Thomas can play just about anything. And she certainly dominates the final scenes.
See you at the movies, hopefully.