With five films, seven TV shows and a host of radio dramas out there already, Rebecca probably doesn’t need another adaptation. Yet remarkably, Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic romance is still popular 80 years after it first found a place on the nation’s bookshelf. Ben Wheatley’s new Netflix take isn’t the best version you’ll see, but it’s also not the worst.
Our first shot is of glamorous, interwar Monte Carlo. We’re quickly introduced to a rich lady’s fragile assistant, played by Lily James, who’s staying at an expensive hotel. Desperate to escape the clutches of her odious employer, she jumps at the chance to accompany a handsome gentleman (Armie Hammer) on several daytime activities. Over a week or two, the pair fall for each other – despite, it has to be said, his hideous mustard suit. Even the revelation that Maxim DeWinter’s wife recently passed away in suspicious circumstances can’t stop James’ naive protagonist from snapping his hand off when he proposes. So, back to Manderley they motor – and it’s at Maxim’s huge Cornwall estate where the wheels start to come off.
Admittedly, holiday flings aren’t the best basis for a happy marriage, but even in Rebecca‘s earliest scenes, Mr and Mrs DeWinter don’t seem to click. Perhaps its James and Hammer, whose clunky meet-cute lacks spark, or maybe the script, which allows them strangely little time together to build a rapport. Whatever the cause, rarely do they convince as star-crossed lovers. Luckily, that’s only a small part of du Maurier’s classic murder mystery. In Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed 1940 picture, it’s a supporting character – the deliciously evil housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – who provides the best entertainment. And so it is in Wheatley’s reimagined film too. Kristin Scott Thomas, whose cold hard stare can only be topped by Paddington, just about manages one sneer during the film’s two hour runtime. Fiercely loyal to the first mistress of Manderley, Scott Thomas’ grim-faced Danvers takes a perverse amount of enjoyment in repeatedly setting the new Mrs DeWinter up for failure. Even after appearing to settle their differences, Danny can’t help stabbing James’ newlywed in the back. These unpredictable confrontations form the spine – and the best bits – of writer Jane Goldman’s twisty-turny screenplay.
Elsewhere, Wheatley regulars Sam Riley (Control) and Keeley Hawes (High Rise) put in well-polished cameos as Maxim’s smarmy relatives, but fans expecting plenty of the director’s trademark style will feel short-changed. This is, without doubt, the least-Ben Wheatley Ben Wheatley movie ever. It’s become a rite of passage for the Free Fire filmmaker’s protagonists to suffer a psychedelic breakdown mid-movie. Think Reece Shearsmith’s drug-induced hallucinations in A Field In England; Neil Maskell’s Kill List hitman losing his shit after a botched job; literally everyone in High Rise. There’s a bit of kaleidoscopic craziness in Rebecca, though nothing on the level of its creator’s earlier work.
As a result, the film ends up disappointing both camps – those hoping for a faithful update of a classic; and Wheatley stans looking for some top tier weirdness. There’s nothing awful about what Netflix has come up with here, but not much stands out either. All in all, it’s frustratingly fine – and when there are so many other, better versions of this story available, that’s not quite good enough.
- Director: Ben Wheatley
- Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas
- Release date: October 21 (Netflix)