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Review: This Modern Take on 'Rebecca' Never Catches Fire

by Padraic Maroney
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Oct 22, 2020
'Rebecca'
'Rebecca'  (Source:Netflix)

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

The opening line from the classic novel "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier is one of the most famous lines in literature. Previously adapted for both the stage and as a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, there's plenty of prestige and history for the gothic tale. Due to this, most filmmakers would be intimidated to tackle the material for a new version. Netflix isn't concerned, offering a modern-feeling adaptation that is big on atmosphere, but the only thing sizzling here are the embers of Manderley.

While traveling as a woman's companion to the demanding Mrs. Van Hopper in Europe, a woman (Lily James) meets a charming widower (Armie Hammer) that all of the wealthy women at the resort are attempting to woo. The pair quickly get swept up into a whirlwind romance that leads to them getting married before returning to his legendary familial estate, known as Manderley.

Soon after arriving, mysterious changes begin to happen in their relationship — not the least of which being the specter of his deceased wife, Rebecca, looms largely over them. As Mrs. de Winter sets out to learn the truth about Rebecca and her death, things are only complicated by Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), Rebecca's loyal servant.

The scenery is lush, from the European countryside to the resort that the characters are staying at during the first act, and the Manderley estate. "Rebecca" excels the most in its production design, getting the audience invested in the characters' surroundings, more so than some of their plights. The production designer ends up stealing the show, offering a stunning world for the characters to live in.

Director Ben Wheatley does a good job of making the film feel modern in its pacing and tone, despite its setting. While he makes it accessible to today's audiences, he fails to capture much of the potential from the book. The creaky old mansion helps to set the tone and provide a ton of atmosphere without the director having to do any heavy lifting. But Wheatley doesn't add much else — worst of all, he isn't able to elicit much passion or chemistry from his two lead actors.

Hammer and James do well enough to not feel out of place in the film and do well by themselves. But during the first act, when they get swept up in their initial romantic entanglement, it's hard to see them as much more as really good friends. Since this was a different time, we wouldn't expect to see them jumping into bed with each other. However, the highly photogenic leads never really sell that either of them is truly in love with the other.

The screen does light up, just a little bit, whenever Thomas appears onscreen. She perfectly captures the essence of the devious head of the household. She is able to keep Danvers' motives close to the chest and even has scenes that almost make her sympathetic. Maybe instead of more seasons of "Ratched," Netflix can invest in a prequel series of Mrs. Danvers, with Thomas returning to the role.

The screenwriters, while generally faithful to the source material, have added a new ending to the film that wasn't in the novel, offering more definitive closure to the characters. It serves mostly as a way to give Mrs. Danvers an ending. One thing that they don't change is that they never give James' Mrs. de Winter a first name. While this works in the novel, where she is the narrator, it's a little more conspicuous as the central character of the movie that she isn't given a name other than her married surname.

While not a home run, casting Hammer and James in the lead roles the movie should attract a younger audience that might not be familiar with the source material. Having a modern sensibility will draw them in, and maybe some will seek out the book. For fans of the novel, it may lead you to your own dreams of a Manderley and a more fulfilling adaptation.


"Rebecca" streams on Netflix beginning October 21, 2020.

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