The 2020 Netflix version of Rebecca is a romantic psychological thriller entirely devoid of genuine romance, psychological depth, or thrills. The film’s formal aesthetic is that of a made-for-TV Lifetime movie run through an Instagram filter, a series of hackneyed scenes imbued with an artificial sheen of garish colors. Mediocre in almost every respect, this Rebecca is a far cry from the classic 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel or the Academy Award-winning 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film. What should be psychologically disturbing or borderline horrific is instead simply dull and forgettable.
Still, Rebecca is also the best Ben Wheatley film I’ve seen yet. Wheatley’s bleak and brutal Kill List (2011) remains on the short list of films I wish I could unsee, and his Free Fire (2016) is similarly a nihilistic slog. Wheatley is known for darkly comic hyper-violent horror and thriller films, so it’s rather surprising to see him choose a boilerplate PG-13 romance/mystery film, which thematically and aesthetically feels like a poor fit. As such, Rebecca is a film with a miscast director, as well as miscast lead actors. The effervescent Lily James, who was truly wonderful in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is shoehorned into portraying the wide-eyed mousy character of Mrs. de Winter, a young English woman of lower-class upbringing who ends up as the bride of the wealthy aristocratic Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Swept up into a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, the new Mrs. de Winter is Maxim’s second wife following the death of the eponymous Rebecca. The first Mrs. de Winter was the idol of the chilly Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the head housekeeper for Manderley, the de Winter mansion by the sea in southern England. As the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to adjust to her aristocratic life, her husband’s secrets, Danvers’ obsessions, and the supposed lingering presence of Rebecca all threaten to destroy her.
James does her best to appear frightened and unsure in nearly every scene at Manderley—particularly around Danvers—but this fear feels as forced and inauthentic as Hammer’s English accent; it never rings true, and often results in unintentional comedy. For instance, in a scene where Mrs. de Winter throws a costume ball at Manderley and inadvertently wears an offensive dress reminiscent of the deceased Rebecca due to Danvers’ manipulations, there’s a moment where a distraught Lily James looks directly into the camera as the camera spins around the dance floor, interspersed with scenes of the crowd of partygoers chanting “Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca….” It’s comically clichéd, and made me laugh aloud. Likewise, Hammer is wildly miscast as a brooding English aristocrat. Everything about him, from his massive physique to his American-pretending-to-be-British accent, simply don’t work here. It’s disappointing, because Hammer is a solid actor when given the right roles (his Winklevoss twins in The Social Network are superb), but I spent many of his scenes mentally recasting Maxim de Winter as various British actors much more suited to the role of a disturbed English gentleman with a dark secret: Charlie Hunnam, Dan Stevens, Robert Pattinson, Tom Hiddleston, Andrew Scott, Nicholas Hoult, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, even someone like Toby Kebbell. Moreover, despite their obvious talents in other films, James and Hammer simply lack any on-screen romantic chemistry or attraction, and their few semi-erotic scenes together are strikingly inert, despite the attempts of the soft-focus cinematography and ostentatious musical score to make the tone feel amorous.
By Rebecca‘s conclusion, the film completely loses the heart and soul of the source material, trading what should be a disturbing and unresolved coda that lingers on in our minds for a happy romantic ending, all shot through with the faux shimmery lighting and color grading of the previous two hours. Everything about Rebecca feels forced, a film going through the motions in order to get everyone on the crew a decent paycheck and to further inflate Netflix’s supposedly massive viewership.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2235695/