Likely the biggest adaptation attempt since Hitchcock’s 1940 masterpiece, Ben Wheatley had big shoes to fill entering this project. Casting Lily James was a good step, as was Kristen Scott Thomas. How does the rest of this modern day try hold up? Not nearly as well as it should.
Alfred Hitchcock directed a masterpiece of cinema with his version of Rebecca, and there hasn’t been a high profile film adaptation attempt since despite the multiple adaptations for television. Wheatley, to his credit, appears to have taken that to heart and made an honest go of spinning this film in a combination of his own voice and remaining faithful to the source material in his own way. For at least two thirds of that running time, that feeling does hold true. In fact, if the final third of the film hadn’t absolutely botched the pacing and removed any and all suspense, this might have actually been at least a 6 or 7 from me, but we’ll get there. But do know that I did try as well as I could to remove any bias towards the 1940 classic and approach this film for what it is, and I do feel as though I was able to do that in part because this film takes great lengths to differentiate itself from the original as well.
Lily James stars as the woman who becomes Mrs. de Winter (and, creatively, is not directly named, though this film doesn’t explore that concept as much as the original adaptation does), and her transformation throughout the film from an extraordinarily naïve young woman serving as a handmaid to the wealthy wife of a lonely, traumatized widower sees a significant change only an actor like James can convey. Put simply, her performance in this film is great, and conveys an entire multitude of emotional states, from delirious joy to devastated depression. Her “accompaniment” is Kristin Scott Thomas in the role of Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household under Maxim de Winter who leads the unnerving events of Manderley. While at times her acting can appear robotic and unchanging, I think there is a certain underlying feature to her facial expressions that is much more subtle- rather than cracking an overly large smile when Mrs. de Winter is suffering, you see small changes around her eyes and mouth, with a sort of colder fascination in ensuring her plans are going as smoothly as she anticipated. In fact, when she is smiling, it’s almost completely to serve the role of gaining Mrs. de Winter’s trust, and that separation between unflinching coldness in her private moments to smiling and warm to deceive the Mrs. makes it more effective. These two actors carry the torch, since everyone else present in this film goes no further than delivering serviceable performances, and some are outright bad- especially the man in the boathouse, and the various extras in a scene when a boat is discovered late in the film. Sam Riley also gives a noteworthy bad performance, never coming off as suave or even remotely intimidating when he is attempting to threaten anyone.
Granted, this film does have a lot of ground to cover, but the choice to separate the plot into three distinct sections does a disservice to the pacing. It also makes the beginning feel as though it is incredibly slow at times, and the time after the reveal of the nature of Rebecca’s death incredibly short. Too much time is spent on certain details that either don’t amount of anything other than setting a vibe of “creepiness” that isn’t very successful or is redundant in its detailing. This film stumbles at establishing its atmosphere, schizophrenically spattering between romance, drama, and suspense without ever taking enough effort to establish each unique atmosphere coherently. While there are moments that capture these feelings effectively, they are much too brief, and segue ways are ineffective between them.
Much of the cinematography ranges from great to sub-par, and a number of locations are from your usual choices such as the Hatfield House. Much of the dream sequences use awful CGI, including a bunch of vines that supposedly cover Mrs. de Winter, and there isn’t anything that instills that fear and haunting of the ghost of Rebecca in this film at all, even with the literal visions of Rebecca in a read dress running throughout the property. Any semblance of nuance has been replaced with something overt, and it simply doesn’t compare. Yes, there are elements of a “haunting” present, such as the West Wing of the house, but barely anything happens from it, barely anything even involving the mystery of Rebecca happens whatsoever in this film and it detracts from the whole “ghost of a woman filled with revenge enacts a plot to ruin her husband” plot. Speaking of which, there is barely any drama that even happens with the drama, with Max being largely loving and supportive, lacking any real cruelty or malice. Every element of intrigue, every element of suspense, every element of anything that made Hitchcock’s film so great is simply watered down for this version.
Truth be told, this is, depressingly, a film that doesn’t have that much to dissect. Hitchcock directed a film 80 years ago that was so great that you could pick it apart almost frame by frame and have something to analyze. This film, in contrast, makes large broad strokes without innovation, without style, and without genuine purpose. In the end, it has particular merits, but they are by and large outshadowed by the film’s own flaws, in ways that to be expected by formula. I explained earlier that parts of the first third of the film do go to the lengths of making it seem different from Hitchcock’s vision, and there are certainly bright points to be gleaned, but the entire last act simply falls flat and delivers on none of the potential suspense. I was sorely tempted to lower the score of this to a 4, but I admit that is likely a more visceral reaction to how disappointed I personally felt and there were still too many points that are in its favor, even if it still ends up being a movie I don’t recommend. This film is competent and not a step further, which depresses me greatly. I give this film a 5 out of 10.