REBECCA (2020), the new Netflix movie based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, is an elegant production billed as a mystery/romance. The emphasis here is clearly on the romance, and as such, it comes off more as a Lifetime movie than a Netflix one.
Du Maurier’s novel was filmed before in 1940, and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. That version of REBECCA received ten Academy Award nominations and won two of them, including Best Picture. Hitchcock, of course, didn’t win for Best Director, as strangely, he never won an Oscar.
This new version of REBECCA I expect will not be receiving these kinds of nominations.
In REBECCA, a young woman (Lily James) meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). A romance follows, and de Winter asks her to marry him, and she does. They return to his massive estate, Manderley, on the English coast, and there, she discovers that he is not quite over the mysterious death of his previous wife, Rebecca, as her spirit seems to pervade over the entire household, including the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who also seems obsessed with the late Rebecca.
Caught in a situation in which she feels woefully unprepared to deal with, the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to save her marriage by learning the truth about Rebecca’s mysterious death, and her husband’s involvement in it.
Again, this new version of REBECCA plays up the romance, and the mystery of what happened to Rebecca, while it sounds intriguing in a review, hardly has much of an impact in the movie. In short, while I enjoyed the two main performances by Lily James and Armie Hammer, and appreciated the handsome photography, I found this one at the end of the day to be terribly boring. And for a film that runs for a full two hours, that’s a long time to be bored.
Director Ben Wheatley struggles mightily with the pacing here, and the film never becomes an exercise in the unraveling of a mystery like it should. Even the elegant photography is just so-so. While the film looks good, it doesn’t look special, and that’s one of my biggest knocks against this new version of REBECCA. It’s not cinematic. It plays like a TV movie, and I couldn’t imagine seeing this on the big screen. It’s just sort of there.
Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Ana Waterhouse wrote the screenplay, based on Du Maurier’s novel, and it does a nice job establishing the character of Mrs. de Winter, who as in the novel, is not given a name, to emphasize the influence and power of Rebecca, who is referred to by name repeatedly. And there are some attempts to tie her plight into modern day women’s issues, but not enough to make this story speak directly to 2020 audiences. And the rest of the story is pretty blah.
Jane Goldman has some pretty impressive writing credits, as she worked on the screenplays for such films as KICK-ASS (2010), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), and THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012), all very good movies. The screenplay here for REBECCA is far inferior to those other films.
Lily James gives the best performance in the movie in the lead role as Mrs. de Winter. She successfully captures the audience’s sympathy, and you want to go along with her as she tries to learn what happened to Rebecca. James was equally as good in DARKEST HOUR (2017), in which she shared lots of screen time with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill. She was also memorable in a smaller role in BABY DRIVER (2017).
Armie Hammer acquits himself well as Maxim de Winter, but at the end of the day, his main job in this movie seems to be to look good. We don’t really get much insight into his tortured soul or how he truly feels about Rebecca. While Hammer has enjoyed some high profile roles, like the Lone Ranger in the flawed THE LONE RANGER (2013), and as Illya in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015), I enjoyed him more in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018) and in a supporting role as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018).
Kristin Scott Thomas plays the cold Mrs. Danvers to the hilt, and she’s sufficiently icy throughout. Like Lily James, she also co-starred in DARKEST HOUR, as she played Churchill’s wife Clemmie.
I had higher expectations for this new version of REBECCA. For starters, I’d hoped it would speak to modern day audiences the way Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN (2019) did. It did not.
I also hoped it would be an intriguing mystery. It wasn’t.
Instead, it was pretty much a basic romance with a secret lurking in the shadows which never comes to light enough to truly impact the story.
As a result, REBECCA remains substandard fare. If you love romances, you’ll enjoy it. For the rest of us, you’d be better off seeking out the 1940 Hitchcock version. That one, after all, was the Best Picture of the year.