DECEMBER 23, 2020
“I’M ASKING YOU TO marry me, you silly fool!” So declares Maxim de Winter in every version of Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel of romance and obsession. Eighty years after Alfred Hitchcock made his iconic film adaptation in his American debut, with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the lead roles, the much less talented director Ben Wheatley has risked a new screening, starring an underwhelming cast, that is gratingly in line with more modern sensibilities.
Conceived in Alexandria, Egypt, where du Maurier was unhappily married to the promising if insensitive British officer Frederick Browning (who later infamously wondered if the failed World War II Arnhem airborne attack went “a bridge too far”), the plot revolves around Mr. de Winter’s two wives — one dead and one living, one nasty and one nice, one sophisticated and one naïve, one bearing the name of the novel’s title and the other unnamed, vying for the soul of her rich and distant husband. In the course of du Maurier’s novel, we learn that Maxim killed the awful first wife and covered up the murder by disposing of her body at sea. He only narrowly escapes the legal consequences through fortunate coincidences that conceal his guilt. He is less successful, however, in dodging the wrath of his malignant head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, whose weird obsession with the first Mrs. de Winter — and failure to dispose of her replacement — sends her into a suicidal, pyromaniacal rage in which she destroys Maxim’s beloved Manderley, the vast, stately home where most of the action unfolds.
Remaking Rebecca in the current climate presents a minefield of challenges to politically correct sensibilities, in which any false step could result in loud backlash. Hitchcock’s original film faced a serious challenge from the Hays Code, the strict set of guidelines that governed American cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s and did not countenance any scenario in which a major crime went unpunished. As a result, Hitchcock had to massage the novel’s plot to make Max innocent of murder, dispatching Rebecca through an improbable suicide spitefully designed to frame him. Today, when screen depictions of crime are often highly relative and many fictional murderers do, indeed, get away with it, Wheatley could restore this element of the original story, but he still had to navigate a much wider array of obstacles that did not trouble his predecessor.
Apart from the central issue of murderous domestic violence, today’s remake requires “correct” approaches to mental illness, repressed sexuality, class pathologies, and the role of patriarchy, along with obligatory depictions of female empowerment. Perhaps most significantly, a filmmaker today must grapple with the idea — I would say delusion — that the absent Rebecca emerges from its pages as a kind of posthumous feminist heroine. “No wonder a man had to kill her,” screeches Kristin Scott Thomas’s cold but not exactly composed Mrs. Danvers in a scene Wheatley invented, after observing that she “lived her life as she pleased.” The feminist interpretation generally avoids mentioning that living “as she pleased” involved utter faithlessness and extreme narcissism, but woe betide a director today who would explore destructive streaks and dark triad personality disorders in anyone who is not a white male.
Virtually all of Wheatley’s alterations are so transparent in their attempts to achieve what millennials vacuously call “relatability” that they make a disastrous muddle of the story. Miscasting the leads already heads in that direction. At 34, Armie Hammer is only three years older than his co-star, Lily James; the film thus makes no effort to preserve the original story’s tense age difference between Max, a man in his 40s, and the unnamed second wife, who is meant to be about 20, and who is strictly enjoined — in dialogue excised from the new film — never to be 36 years old. Olivier was a year younger than Hammer is now when he starred in Hitchcock’s film, but in addition to vastly superior acting ability, he also had a solid decade on Fontaine and played the part tweedily enough to pull off an even older character.
Here, however, we have an inoffensively “age-appropriate” couple who get close in a predictable montage of cute dates. The romance is too obvious to merit even curiosity, let alone intrigue. The lonely insecurity of Olivier’s older Max, so essential to understanding his fraught character, whom the heroine in Hitchcock’s version discovers standing on a cliff possibly contemplating suicide, is nowhere in evidence in Hammer’s performance, just as the awkward incredulity of Fontaine’s schoolgirl crush has been replaced by James’s sobbing determination to escape her unenviable employment as a paid companion to the vulgar middle-aged American climber Mrs. Van Hopper. When Olivier’s Max suggests that the girl come with him to Manderley, she wonders aloud in all earnestness if she would be going as his secretary before he tosses off his “silly fool” marriage proposal with the same insouciance with which he then invites her to breakfast. When Hammer’s younger and more virile Max condescends to James about “your young life” and delivers the “silly fool” line in a maudlin embrace (the “secretary” comment sounds like pro forma sarcasm), he comes across as a frightful bore — which, perhaps not accidentally, is how he self-ironically introduces himself in Wheatley’s version.
Wheatley also sanitizes the new Mrs. de Winter’s most vital quality, her sincerity. Despite the striking simplicity of Fontaine’s character, we learn that her poor but artsy parents endowed her with a dignity strong enough for the struggles ahead. It is only natural that, after her faltering attempts to be polite, she should stand up to Mrs. Danvers with the most important line in the Hitchcock film, “I am Mrs. de Winter now” — a memorable proclamation that the downbeat and at least nominally heterosexual English poet Philip Larkin is said to have exclaimed to himself in the mirror whenever he needed a pick-me-up.
In the new film, we have no such insight. James delivers a pouting take on the character, who, in her insipid narration, “knew nothing and had no prospects.” Her climactic line is bowdlerized into the closing scene’s bland and ritualistically feminist, “I know the woman I am now,” which sounds like it was lifted from a self-help book that reassures the middle-aged that they are but “works in progress.” James bumbles aimlessly through most of the action, suffering an embellished program of petty humiliations that Wheatley largely invented didactically to reinforce that she is a downtrodden victim of a cruel class system we are all supposed to hate. Mrs. Van Hopper, originally a socially ambitious woman who gives her charge comically little thought, now seems to have no other purpose in life but to put her down. From beginning to end, the Manderley staff look upon their new mistress with scarcely disguised disdain. Wheatley even gives Max a batty old granny who shrieks with laughter at the “silly notion” that the new girl is his wife before being rushed off amid a chorus of insincere British excuses that made me erupt in laughter. There is no suggestion — as there is in the novel, Hitchcock’s film, and much of the upper-class English literary tradition from which they descend — that the new Mrs. de Winter’s kindliness and simplicity are virtues that her new milieu might actually prize in a way that today’s Hollywood and the envy-soaked insecurity of middle-class audiences cannot comprehend. Wheatley even adds a tinge of gratuitous class consciousness to the inquest into Rebecca’s death: its decorously efficient impartiality in Hitchcock yields here to a malicious inspector who delights in getting in Max’s blue-blooded face to tell him that “no one is above the law.”
Indeed, it is only Max’s legal dilemma that gives the new Mrs. de Winter a previously undetectable personality and sense of purpose. Whereas the novel and Hitchcock’s film allow Max to deflect guilt by questioning Rebecca’s secret doctor, here the plucky quasi-feminist James breaks into the doctor’s office to sleuth through his records, which reveal Rebecca’s cancer diagnosis and thus give a suddenly helpless Max enough of an alibi to get away with his crime. In a matter of minutes, Wheatley has morphed the character from useless waif to accessory after the fact. She even summons the strength to fire the vexing Mrs. Danvers, who is much more openly vicious than Judith Anderson’s plainer and subtler harridan, though the latter’s resemblance to a passive-aggressive associate professor makes her arguably truer to life (“You are nothing, you’re worthless,” Thomas unthinkably tells her new mistress at a vulnerable moment when suicide might be an option). But here, too, the new treatment ends in a letdown. Confronted just as she is about to leap to her death from a cliff, Danvers spitefully predicts that the heroine will never be happy with Max despite his escape from justice. A lame “Yes, I will,” is Mrs. de Winter’s feeble excuse for a retort as the older woman jumps.
Despite its shortcomings, the new Rebecca is a feast for the eyes. The early scenes in Monte Carlo are practically an advertisement designed to tempt hip hedge-fund managers who want to do the French Riviera in style before they get too old to party at Jimmy’z. Manderley, which is largely represented by stately homes belonging to the Marquess of Salisbury, is huge and Gothic but so immaculately beautiful and so frenetically infused with a Downton Abbey–derived energy that it is hard to sense its oppressive atmosphere. Hammer and James are both very attractive and beautifully costumed. They look good together driving around in a sleek convertible Bentley (Wheatley inclusively allows her to drive and know something about cars). They have enough chemistry to support rumors of an on-set romance that may have broken up Hammer’s marriage of 10 years to an older woman.
There are, however, some flubs. The role of Favell, Rebecca’s cousin and love interest who tries to blackmail Max with circumstantial evidence of the murder, is lost on Sam Riley, who plays the character like a lovable loser. One misses the supercilious cheek and arch hauteur of George Sanders. The Manderley Ball, where Mrs. Danvers sets up the new wife for the immense faux pas of appearing in Rebecca’s costume, is a jazzy drinks party that would never have occurred in such a place at that time. At one point, Hammer, whose background (his great-grandfather was the industrialist Armand Hammer) should have taught him better, clumsily introduces his wife to a pair of their guests rather than the other way around, as one should. And did I really hear Maxim address the concierge of his swanky Monte Carlo hotel as “Sir”?