“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again,” begins both Daphne du Morier’s 1938 bestseller Rebecca and almost every adaptation of the Gothic novel that followed, including the winner of Alfred Hitchcock’s best 1940 film. d. With such a final version already in the books, why restart Rebecca? Well, as the starting line suggests, one can and does return to the film’s tragic-romantic mansion – no matter how shrouded in mist and mystery – as often as one wishes. The fresh reception may be silly, but it’s not without interest, and High Rise director Ben Whitley aims to attract those who may be visiting for the first time.
If Rebecca was the first Madame de Winter, and Joan Fontaine̵
That’s what makes Hitch Rebecca’s “Rebecca” to this remake: The earlier film is so big above all that Whitley does that it necessarily gives the new project an inferiority complex. But neither the director nor his writing team (Stardust writer Jane Goldman, assisted by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) are trying to make a direct remake here. Their “Rebecca” is more of a readaptation, restoring some key ideas that the Hayes Code (the Hollywood game book on self-censorship from the mid-30s to the late 60s) cleared up.
In Du Morier’s novel, a young woman of humble origins (played here by Lily James) is knocked off her feet by the recent widower Maxim de Winter (Army Hammer, looking more than ever like vintage model JC Leyendecker) as she accompanies her employer, Anne Dowd. ) in Monte Carlo. Romance sparks quickly – as all things usually do in this unusually flammable drama – and before our heroine has time to make sense of her emotions, she is escorted back to Manderley, the British mansion, like Maxim’s Castle, which is located unsafely close to wall of steep cornice rocks. This dizzying arrangement was a hot topic in De Maurier’s work, as My Cousin Rachel reminds us, leaving the audience with quiet, disturbing worries that individual characters, if not the whole situation, could sink at any moment.
Whatever the heat Maxim and the new Madame de Winter (this is a remarkable detail in Du Morier’s commentary on the roles of gender and the gross power imbalance in this particular marriage that her first name is never spoken), who enjoys the Riviera , turns into a grim twist as they return to Manderley, a place haunted by the memory of Rebecca and overhanging by chief housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Christine Scott Thomas, whose casting feels like the true meaning of the film).
Mrs. Danvers is one of the iconic female roles – as Lady Macbeth – whose influence reappears in modern cinema, complicated by the strange subtext actor Judith Anderson, hinted at in her original performance. The temptation must have been great to adjust, but Thomas made the more effective choice to reveal dimensions of his motivation, even if her “love” for her mistress lost some of the ambiguity that made the classic Mrs. Danvers such a disturbing villain. She, not Maxim, is most saddened by the loss of the original Madame de Winter, and Thomas’s interpretation is effective enough that we do not measure her against any image that Anderson burned us long ago.
There are no literal ghosts in Rebecca – no figures wandering the halls dressed in white sheets, no translucent ghosts lurking in the background. But this is any ghost story in the sense that the title character is never seen, certainly dead, and yet her presence can be felt above every aspect of the film. Psychologically, the film makes an expert study of the insecurity that everyone feels when they take another person’s place, bringing the audience into James’s perspective to the point we share in her paranoia: the suspicion that the entire staff is judging and gossiping behind her back. She just can’t believe that her student new husband may have seen something in her that is preferable to the perfection that everyone attributes to the previous Madame de Winter – although perhaps this has more to do with the admiration of Mr. Mrs. Danvers for her late mistress.
For about three-quarters of the time, Rebecca does a respectable job of navigating between respect for the source and establishing her own identity. And then, just as a few enlightened improvements need to be made – when Maxim reveals his involvement in Rebecca’s disappearance, forcing his new wife to make a difficult choice – this Rolls-Royce adaptation deviates. The idea was obviously to strengthen James’s character agency by making her more active in clearing her husband’s name. But she’s still imbecile with squint-eyed eyes (be careful how long it takes just to find out that Rebecca drowned), so Nancy Drew’s third-act routine doesn’t really fly – or even need to be prosecuted. for break.
There was an opportunity for Whitley’s sinister mood to steer Rebecca into darker territory, but instead he and longtime MP Lori Rose embraced an elegant, golden idea from the 1930s that felt far removed from the sinister realm of the Impressionist. Hitchcock’s shadow world like Anthony Minghella’s “Talented Mr. Ripley” is from Whitley’s own “Murder List.” Its update opens in the decadent splendor of Catching a Thief, then allowing the exquisite production and costume design to collide with that feeling that the new Madame de Winter must have, that termites are swarming beneath all these decadent surfaces – which has been a signature of Whitley’s other films to date.
Somehow, the director seems to have fallen into a similar trap to the one that Hitchcock lured: In both versions, the producers take a dominant hand, replacing some of the directors’ instincts. Here was the idea of the Working Title team – which in the past relied on non-standard talents to direct favorite literary traits, thus getting the world to turn Joe Wright’s modern turn into “Pride & Prejudice” – to hire Wheatley for the Project. But one suspects that they may not have let him go as dark as his instincts could have taken the material, making this return to Manderley a little more flammable.