Okay, confession time – I haven’t seen the Hitchcock adaptation of Rebecca. Worse still, I haven’t even read Daphne de Maurier’s original (and much beloved) source novel.
I know, it’s shameful. And my ignorance is not for lack of interest either: a gothic ghost story; a sinister housekeeper; scandals; secrets, and shipwrecks – it’s everything I could wish for in a book.
Ordinarily, I might attempt to hide my unfamiliarity with Rebecca – stroking my chin thoughtfully whenever someone mentions ‘Manderley’, and making that knowing sound in the back-of-the-throat which sounds unfortunately bovine. However, on this occasion, I am pleased to admit to my ignorance, since it was this very unfamiliarity with either material which allowed me to enjoy Ben Wheatley’s latest iteration of the tale without worrying whether it matched up the hallowed works that preceded it.
The first act is particularly quick-witted and charming, staged glamorously upon the azure coastlines of the French Riviera. Lily James is a ladies’ companion in the service of a Mrs. Van Hopper (grandly played by Ann Dowd), keeping her employer company whilst she travels the world. It’s a lowly role, but one that provides escape from the lonely orphandom of her previous life.
One morning, Mrs. Van Hopper is taken ill, and in her absence Lily James’ character is denied entry to the hotel restaurant. Aid comes when the mysterious Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a handsome English gentleman and recent widower, invites her to join him at his table. Brylcreemed, bequiffed, and resplendent in a bold three-piece that errs on just the right side of mustard, Maxim represents the easy life of privilege James’ character has never known. Before she knows it, the two are slurping down oysters at nine in the morning and chatting endlessly into the afternoon. Soon, following a whirlwind of sunlit drives and beachside sojourns, Maxim proposes to her, and the two return to the de Winters’ estate in Cornwall – the aforementioned Manderley.
It’s here that Wheatley’s film changes gear, shifting from sun-kissed romance to gothic mystery the instant that the newly-weds set foot on English soil. And it’s not just the genre that changes: where Maxim was previously warm and laidback, the confines of his grand home render him brittle and aloof. Gone is the ebullient mustard suit, replaced by subdued autumnal hues. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (the always wonderful Kristen Scott Thomas), doesn’t make the second Mrs. de Winter any more comfortable: crow-like in mourning black, she seems almost supernatural in her omnipresence, and demonstrates an unwavering loyalty to Rebecca, the previous Mrs. de Winter.
Indeed, Maxim’s first wife seems to have been beloved by everyone; wherever Lily James’ character ventures, she is regaled with tales of the beauty and brilliance of her predecessor. In the house, the memory of Rebecca hangs ominously in the air, the echo of her life reverberating into the present in the form of furniture embossed with her initials, and the shrine-like preservation of her sleeping quarters as they were before her death. It’s a creepy and enthralling set-up, and as the new Mrs. de Winter learns more about Rebecca and her mysterious death, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems.
All of this is hugely engrossing, especially for a newbie like me who is unfamiliar with the novel’s famous twist; and the heartfelt romance at the beginning of the film ensures that we are invested in the fate of the central couple in spite of the dark unravellings around them. Similarly, coming from the director of A Field in England and Kill List, it is unsurprising that Rebecca is a film which is strongest when it leans into the more horrifying aspects of de Maurier’s story. In one of the film’s finest moments, the protagonist’s panic and confusion as she stumbles through the grotesquely attired attendees of a masquerade ball is translated breathtakingly into a ghoulish fever-dream painted in giallo-esque primary-colours.
Of course, the film is by no means perfect: in my opinion, the final stretch which genre-bends once again into a courtroom-drama (cum-overly-sentimental-love-story) feels like a misstep, but in spite of this, I found myself gripped by the plot and emotionally engaged with the characters. Furthermore, it is apparent that this iteration of de Maurier’s novel chooses to excise some of the more sinister ambiguities present in the original material, and perhaps an alternate adaptation which embraces these elements (as indeed I believe the Hitchcock version does) could have been more psychologically intriguing. However, it seems to me that this interpretation is no lesser for being clean-cut, and the result is certainly great entertainment, providing thrills and spooks aplenty.
For many younger viewers (myself included), Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca will be their first encounter with de Maurier’s story, and in that sense, I’d argue that this is the perfect introduction. Less intimidating than an ‘old classic’ like the Hitchcock version and less of a commitment than a novel, the new adaptation of Rebecca is ideal viewing for dark and stormy nights spent curled up on the sofa with a mug of cocoa.
Rebecca is available to stream on Netflix