By Nadia Dalimonte
Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas in Rebecca (2020)
What makes Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Rebecca’ intriguing is that even after death, the titular character’s haunting presence is felt deeply. Whether it be through the behaviours of all those who played a role in her life, or through the walls of Manderley, the moody estate she left behind physically, Rebecca’s impact endures.
Rebecca is the story of an unnamed woman who marries a wealthy widower and moves to his estate, where the haunting shadow of his late wife still lives. Haunting is not the best word to describe Ben Wheatley’s flat adaptation of the gothic tale. In his reimagining of events, there is hardly any sense of dread or intrigue conjured by the character of Rebecca. She is certainly explained to be the driving force behind many of the other characters’ actions, but at no point in the film is her impact strongly felt.
Wheatley brings increasing focus to the whirlwind romance angle between the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and the new Mrs. de Winter (Lily James). The decision to go down this route takes a lot of tension and mystery out of the film’s source material. To make matters worse, the romance is sorely lacking in the passion that would fuel a whirlwind, as the lead roles range from okay to blatantly miscast. Armie Hammer could have been asleep in every lush frame and it would not have made any difference to the film. James tries, but ultimately struggles to delve into the psyche of her character.
Even Kristin Scott Thomas, the only person in this film who seems to have a strong grip on the character she plays, is not given very much to do. Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper at Manderley, has a deep love for Rebecca, and remains adamant about keeping her presence alive in the estate. In Mrs. Danvers eyes, the home belongs to Rebecca, and absolutely no one can nor would even be worthy of filling those shoes. Introducing a new Mrs. de Winter into this picture creates a dynamic between these women that is interesting on the page, but lifeless on screen. The scenes between Thomas and James hint at potential but feel terribly one-sided, as the former performance digs deeper than the latter. All of the performances are let down by weak direction and writing. But Thomas’s work in particular feels the most disappointing, because she evokes the most intriguing spark, and is the only performer who can really channel Rebecca’s impact through strong reminiscing. She establishes a mysterious subtext with her presence and expressions, but never fully gets to soar, even with a more dramatic ending for her character.
Wheatley also tries and fails to infuse haunted elements into the film. Mrs. Danvers has a brief moment of explaining to Mrs. de Winter that Rebecca’s presence is still felt in the estate, but this character affirmation adds nothing to the story. The biggest problem with this film is that Wheatley progresses without having a strong grasp on Rebecca’s impact. There are numerous moments of obvious insistence, such as Mrs. de Winter finding hair in Rebecca’s brush, or all of the characters watching a body being carried from a shipwreck. Another scene in particular sees a room full of house guests circling a downcast Mrs. de Winter while chanting the name ‘Rebecca’. Wheatley just cannot evoke the mystery of that character in an impactful way, having to shout her name aloud in a feverish and choppily edited ballroom sequence instead.
The editing in this film is erratic to say the least. For some reason, there’s a fast forwarding technique sometimes used on characters’ thoughts, placing them in scenes that they are going to appear in very soon, then moving backwards to where they are in the story’s progression, then moving forward again. It’s odd, and adds to the overall disappointing experience of watching this film, especially given the adapted text. Rebecca skips mindlessly around the source material, lacks any sense of suspense, and fails to evoke the elements that make its titular character so mysterious in the first place.