Ben Wheatley is certainly a versatile director. Over a relatively short career, he’s given us surreal dark comedy in Sightseers, dystopian sci fi in High-Rise and a bloated snore-fest in the endlessly protracted action movie Free Fire. Now he plunges himself headlong into a remake of Rebecca, clearly undeterred by the fact that many cinephiles regard the 1940 version as Alfred Hitchock’s finest hour.
Daphne Du Maurier’s source novel is well-regarded but there’s little doubt that it’s a bit of a potboiler – albeit a brilliantly executed one. Essentially a contemporary riff on Jane Eyre, it has been memorably described as a ghost story without a ghost, which seems about right.
The unnamed protagonist of the story, played here by Lily James, is suffering through the thankless task of being a ‘lady’s companion’ to the extremely unpleasant Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd, being effortlessly loathsome). Mind you, the suffering takes place on the French Riviera, so I can’t help feeling that things really could be a lot worse.
When she encounters eligible widower Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer), she thinks herself to be completely out of his league, but a whirlwind romance duly ensues and it isn’t long before she’s whisked back to Manderley, his stately home in Cornwall, complete with battalions of servants and a baleful housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas). The latter is clearly devoted to her employer but more particularly to the memory of his late wife. The newly married Mrs De Winter soon discovers that Rebecca is a tough act to follow – and that there’s something decidedly fishy about her death…
Jane Goldman’s screenplay gets quite a few things right and redresses omissions left out of the earlier film, mainly due to pressure from the Hayes Code. This version adheres to Du Maurier’s downbeat conclusion, which is a typically reckless move on Wheatley’s part, but it pays off.
Lily James nails the heroine’s awkward vulnerability, while Hammer gives us a much more likeable De Winter than Laurence Oliver’s rather saturnine performance. Furthermore, Scott Thomas is a perfect Mrs Danvers: cool, calculating – and with a prowling sexuality.
There are other good things too. In his sumptuous location photography, Laurie Rose opts for vivid colours rather than the usual muted tones and somehow captures the era perfectly. I also enjoy the inclusion of several traditional folk songs, which really shouldn’t work, but do, giving certain sequences a kind of Wicker Man vibe, helping to accentuate the lead character’s sense of alienation.
If I’ve a major criticism, it’s that this Rebecca is somewhat lacking in suspense – a quality that Mr Hitchcock knew all about. In the film’s latter stretches, where Mrs De Winter has to turn detective in order to save her husband’s reputation – and life – she seems to achieve her objective without breaking a sweat. Of course, the fact that she even wants to help him is itself a matter of some controversy.
Du Maurier’s story is ultimately nihilistic, as though her primary concern is to give the subject of romance a thoroughly good kicking. Wheatley colludes in this endeavour, and the result is well worth viewing.