Ann Dowd

Rebecca

23/10/20

Netflix

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.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

American Animals

10/09/18

True life heist movies.

You wait for ages and then two come along at the same time. The ‘other’ film, is of course, the uninspiring plod-fest that is King of Thieves, but Bart Layton’s American Animals is an altogether more exciting proposition. This is a heist movie like no other – indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it knocks the genre upside down and inside out, creating something quite unique in the process. It’s neither a documentary nor a fictionalised account of actual events, but an inspired amalgam of the two. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The news that Layton is now a favourite to step into the vacant slot at the helm of the next Bond movie seems somehow… odd. Of course, I understand the appeal of taking on such a potentially career-boosting project but, after this beauty, it would feel decidedly like a step down.

It’s 2003 and a bunch of disaffected students at the oddly named Transylvania University in Kentucky decide to try and steal some books from their campus library. These are no ordinary books, but priceless (and huge) first edition bird studies by Audubon, worth millions of dollars and guarded only by one elderly female librarian. Spencer Rhinehard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) first formulate the idea and then, as it gradually moves towards becoming a reality, they recruit casual acquaintances Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Renner) to help them bring it to fruition. At first, it’s like a playful fantasy, with the ringleaders watching famous heist movies for inspiration, experimenting with disguises and meticulously drawing up their plans. But as the actual event looms ever closer, things begin to get more serious.

The events of American Animals are skilfully cut with interviews with the real life robbers and their parents, many of whom are clearly still in shock about what happened. The brilliance of Layton’s film is the way he keeps switching the point of view, sometimes featuring the real perpetrators in the same frame as the actors who play them, until we’re no longer sure whose narrative we are actually following and which version of the story we should believe. It’s an audacious approach that really pays off.

When we come to the events of the crime itself, the proceedings turn very dark indeed, emphasising the fact that slick, cool heists really are a product of fiction. This robbery is frantic and sweaty and punctuated with expletives – and, of course, unlike the fantasy, there really is a victim here, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd, but also seen as herself, reflecting on her ill-treatment).┬áThe reality is, of course, that absolutely nothing goes to plan, the perpetrators are way out of their depth and, once the robbery is over, they are plunged into a world of dread as they await their inevitable fate.

Layton has created something very special here, something that’s worlds away from the workmanlike tropes of the James Bond franchise. I hope he continues to pursue his own projects, because films of this quality don’t come along very often.

In short, don’t miss this; it really is a stunner.

5 stars

Philip Caveney