Review by Jane Loughman
“He’s only marrying you because he doesn’t want to go on living in that big old house with her ghost!” Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) screams at Lily James’ nameless heroine of Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020). “I don’t believe in ghosts!” James’ character retaliates before she elopes with the dashing widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Yet, as much as the second Madame de Winter claims she doesn’t believe in ghosts, Wheatley’s star-studded adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel certainly has a ghost looming in its shadows, that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).
Wheatley and his cast have insisted that they have not remade Hitchcock’s Academy Award winning film, that they focused instead on faithfully adapting du Maurier’s novel (source). The 2020 film succeeds in its glamorous cinematography, its intricate and colourful costume design (although I refuse to believe that Maxim de Winter would wear the same yellow suit two days in a row), and in Lily James’ portrayal of the young, naive, and dowdy heroine. However, Wheatley’s film fails to adapt du Maurier’s Gothic atmosphere, a key element of the 1938 bestseller. It lacks in creating a sense of the uncanny. Some of the most significant scenes of setting or suspense are rushed, those which, in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, are perfectly paced.
The opening of Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca– an eerie, seemingly one-shot scene– is one of the most iconic in cinema history. The slow “twisting and turning” of the camera through the thick woods up to the dark Manderley mansion lends the opening its mysterious, Gothic ambience. An entire two minutes go by before we even meet our first character, yet we understand there is an ominous history behind Manderley. Hitchcock takes his time in establishing the Gothic setting, while in Wheatley’s adaptation, the opening is hurried along, not allowing the audience an opportunity to digest. The shot of Manderley is dark and ominous, but then distracted by a fade into red. Quick cuts of other dream sequences diminish the potential power the opening shots of Manderley had. Less than a minute goes by, and we are already brought to the heroine’s memory of Monte Carlo. It feels as if in the beginning, and throughout the film, Manderley’s haunting aura is swept aside in favour of over-the-top editing and production.
Wheatley’s film fails to adapt du Maurier’s Gothic atmosphere, a key element of the 1938 bestseller…it lacks in creating a sense of the uncanny.
Mrs. Danvers is a character of the utmost importance in Rebecca. She is the Gothic villain, possessed by the spirits of Rebecca and of Manderley. The scene in which she shows the second Mrs. de Winter around Rebecca’s old bedroom is paramount. In Wheatley’s film, this scene misses some of the suspense building it requires to unsettle the audience – it’s just too quick. Kristen Scott Thomas is almost too charming and elegant as the sinister housekeeper. The piano score in the background makes the scene feel like a CSI interrogation rather than something subtle and supernatural. While the blue hues of the bedroom are icy and James’ acting does express discomfort, the audience is not chilled by an impending presence of Rebecca. In Hitchcock’s Rebecca, I am convinced that Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is a ghost: she floats across the screen, hardly blinking. The audience can feel the dead Rebecca is there, in the shadows, in Danvers’ unblinking stares, in the non-diegetic music. The suspense of the scene is built up to Danvers leading Joan Fontaine’s heroine, who is almost in trance, to the bed to handle Rebecca’s undergarments. The eerie violins of the score reach a crescendo as we see the heroine in distress, overwhelmed by the ghostly presence of Rebecca. Hitchcock’s bedroom scene lasts a tense five minutes to let the audience soak up the Gothic, while Wheatley’s lasts a mere two.
Even if the Netflix adaptation wants to be seen as a faithful adaptation of du Maurier’s thrilling tale, and not as a revival of the 1940 Hollywood classic, it will still have to face the inevitable comparison to the classic which more successfully captures the novel’s essence.