Review: “Rebecca” is Haunted by Past Adaptations

With a lack of subtlety, ineffectual characterization, and incoherent themes, “Rebecca” disappoints both as an adaptation and as a film. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Rebecca” starred Lily James and Armie Hammer, and was released by Netflix on October 21. This adaptation, based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel published in 1938, is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award winning Best Picture movie, “Rebecca” (1940). Wheatley’s film follows Lily James’ unnamed character, a working class woman, as she falls in love with aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Renamed to “Mrs. de Winter” upon marriage, James’ character struggles to adjust to her new life as she is haunted by social expectations and the looming spectre of de Winter’s dead wife, Rebecca. Caution: there are spoilers ahead.

The crux of the film’s incompetence derives from its emphasis on the obvious. “Rebecca” presents the audience with ham-fisted themes and in-your-face characterization. In one scene, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), Mr. de Winter’s housekeeper, gives the new Mrs. de Winter a tour of the estate, Manderly. She rattles off facts and procedures while Mrs. de Winter remarks, overwhelmed: “Glad you’re here, Mrs. Danvers. I’ll never remember all this.” This line is a pointless reminder of Mrs. de Winter’s unfamiliarity with Manderly, as her arrival scene occurs only three minutes prior. Contrast this scene with the equivalent moment from Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” when Mrs. de Winter abashedly asks Frith (Edward Fielding), the butler, the location of one of the rooms. This small interaction is smoother than the excessiveness of Wheatley’s adaptation in establishing Mrs. de Winter’s alienation at Manderly. The lack of subtlety in “Rebecca” betrays its dearth of trust in its audience to understand plot points and attitudes, negating its own complexity and potential. 

Another symptom of the film’s resistance to nuance is the clichéd portrayal of the main characters’ romance. With a forbidden affair and an idyllic setting, the set-up of “Rebecca” feels like a clearance-rack YA novel; the first meeting between Mrs. de Winter and Maxim occurs when she drops her purse at a restaurant, on par with the cheesy trope of dropping a textbook in the high school hallway. Unlike the standoffish, mean old man portrayed by Hitchcock and du Maurier’s Maxims, 34-year-old Hammer is overly kind and—surprisingly for a Hollywood film—too young. Maxim’s rosy introduction inadequately sets up his “infamous temper,” which comes to a head later in the film. This initial characterization weakens the film’s climactic revelation that Maxim murdered Rebecca because she was unfaithful. The de Winters treat the murder and its investigation as an inconvience, and the film’s preoccupation with framing the couple as protagonists undercuts the emotional impact of the big reveal. Unlike Hitchcock’s film, where Rebecca died after hitting her head at a boathouse, Wheatley’s film does not have the Hays Code (the 1934-1968 film industry’s self-censorship guidelines) to contend with. Therefore, Wheatley’s adaptation was free to use Maxim’s abrasive personality to set up the reveal of his violent tendencies, but instead, it aimed for a strange, tonally dissonant, Disney prince-type character. The charming, romantic older man in Italy may have worked for Hammer in “Call Me By Your Name,” but sadly, it wasn’t the right choice for “Rebecca.” 

In an attempt to stay relevant in current social issues, “Rebecca” pushes half-hearted feminist themes that fall flat because of the plot. Of Rebecca’s infidelity, Danvers says: “Why shouldn’t a woman amuse herself? She lived her life as she pleased.” Such attempts at fostering a feminist undertone fail because of the film’s overwhelming bias towards Maxim and Mrs. de Winter. Through the aforementioned rose-tinted lens towards Maxim, the film is overly sympathetic towards him and nearly condones the violence in Rebecca’s death. Additionally, despite being the only character with progressive views on women’s rights, Danvers is the film’s main “villain.” She intentionally harms Mrs. de Winter and her marriage by publicly humiliating her and even attempting to persuade her to commit suicide. The film uses her grudge against the de Winters to portray Danvers as the villain without any deeper consideration of her character’s trauma.

However, her crimes are minimal against those of the protagonists. Her portrayal as the antagonist is unfair when all her actions both align with the law and are motivated by a desire to avenge a loved one. In comparison to the main characters, where one is abetting a criminal, and the other is the criminal, Danvers’ villainization has no justifiable grounds. The degradation of her character is merely a destruction of the meek feminist themes the film attempts to build. The film’s need to include social justice values reveals its desire to justify its own existence—and functions as an acknowledgment of its own irrelevance.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “Rebecca” is its wasted potential. The combination of an exciting premise and star-studded cast set high expectations for “Rebecca.” However, the film botches its execution. A scene in the film shows Mrs. de Winter embarrassing herself in an attempt to live up to her late counterpart; she is met with silence, judgemental stares, and Maxim’s anger, much like the embarrassingly unfavorable response toward the movie as a whole. Similar to Mrs. de Winter’s imitation of Rebecca’s outfit with disastrous results, “Rebecca” shoehorns cliché romance, dissonant characterization, and ineffective advocacy into two disappointing hours. Under the guise of reimagining source material (but with no originality to match), the film squanders its potential and forces the audience through an ultimately unnecessary adaptation. The audience won’t need a dead spouse’s ghost to haunt them with “Rebecca” hanging over their heads. 

This film receives a 2/5 for its clichés, redundancies, and failures in adaptation.