de Winter is Coming

Netflix’s lame remake of ‘Rebecca’

Never out of print since it first appeared in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s romantic suspense novel Rebecca has proven a durable spinner of film, television, stage, and radio adaptations. Another remake isn’t a bad idea; it’s just hard to see what the latest one from Netflix—directed by “edgy” indie filmmaker Ben Wheatley—brings to the table. You might expect gorgeous costumes, a few jump scares, and more explicit lesbian psychodrama than Alfred Hitchcock could get away with in his Oscar-winning 1940 film version. You’d be disappointed.

Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) has come to Monte Carlo looking for a fresh start and finds it in Lily James, the paid travelling companion to a vulgar snob, Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who is staying at his hotel. As a wealthy widower still mourning the tragic death of his wife Rebecca, Maxim has even more psychological baggage than Mrs. Van Hopper has suitcases. Nonetheless, he woos her winsome young employee and proposes with the beguiling line: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” While Mrs. Van Hopper splutters in protest, Maxim whisks the grateful girl—known only as Mrs. de Winter—back to England and his storied estate, Manderley.

While 1930s Monte Carlo and Cornwall look smashing, a bizarre soundtrack of sixties folk music mars the the mise en scène , and Manderley is a generically gloomy country house with an incongruously fabulous Art Deco master suite. But the biggest sore thumb is Hammer, who is woefully miscast as the mysterious Maxim de Winter. Though he gamely dons an English accent and a truly awful mustard-yellow suit, there’s no excuse for giving the part to a young, mystery-free American actor when it calls for a tortured, middle-aged Brit. (A mustachioed Laurence Olivier played Hitchcock’s Maxim.) Where’s Dominic West when you need him?

Du Maurier—herself no stranger to daddy issues—specified that the second Mrs. de Winter was young enough to be Maxim’s daughter. “A husband is not so very different from a father after all,” Maxim mansplains in the book. Hammer and James are both in their early thirties and look even younger. Theirs is less of a May-December romance than a wallflower falling for the most popular boy in prep school.

In the age of #MeToo, it’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to go in a different direction. The romantic pairing of Charles Dance and Emilia Fox in the 1997 PBS miniseries was jarring, but the palpable difference in the characters’ age and social status made the rest of the story fall into place. In Hammer’s hands, Maxim’s moodiness, secrecy, and casual cruelty come across as bratty rather than sophisticated and world-weary; creeping tensions between husband and wife aren’t easily explained away by the generation gap. James can (and frequently does) play wide-eyed ingenues in her sleep, but she’s far too pretty and perky for the role of a mousy ladies’ companion. In a major, unnecessary departure from the book, the film even sends her into Nancy Drew mode, sneaking into an office building in the dead of night to steal a telltale document.

This Rebecca could have made its mark in the impeccable choice of Kristin Scott Thomas for Manderley’s sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Scott Thomas is a stern, chic presence who makes the most of her limited screen time, but the movie doesn’t give her much to do except lurk. Instead of expertly gaslighting the second Mrs. de Winter, she insults her to her face; instead of wondering what she’s up to, we wonder why she still has a job. With a two-hour running time—much of that spent in Monte Carlo or a courtroom, episodes Hitchcock wisely chose to trim—Mrs. Danvers goes from zero to crazy at an improbably brisk pace.

A few standout scenes—a fever dream of a masquerade ball, some seaside naughtiness, an ominous flock of birds borrowed from Du Maurier’s Hitchcock-adapted novella The Birds—hint at how Wheatley might have tipped the story from pedestrian period piece into neo-Gothic horror. But he’s holding back, and, as a result, this Rebecca sparks but doesn’t catch fire.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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