The poor girl thinks she married into a dream life of wealth and romance. Then comes the rude awakening that she lives in the long shadow of the late Mrs. Rebecca de Winter. In this sprawling mansion, the second wife is barred from the west wing where the late Rebecca used to roam. Her husband’s affections have cooled toward her, and she’s subjected to sullenness and scolding. Then, there’s Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the sneering housekeeper who never fails to mention how the new Mrs. de Winter is failing to live up to the memory of her predecessor. The pressure of comparison drives the young woman to dark places until a horrible secret is washed ashore that puts a horrid trial on the de Winter marriage.
The original novel was a tale of gothic terror and gaslighting, as the unnamed heroine doubted herself and her sanity in the face of such coldness and cruelty. Though adapted many times since, the Rebecca most remembered is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, which starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. This film proved so seminal that it’s impossible not to compare Wheatley’s adaptation to it. And in this, the new version only suffers.Hitchcock brought a macabre wit to his Rebecca, which made posh clowns out of the upper crust who treated his heroine like a pretty plaything. The theatricality of his Van Hopper made her an arrogant buffoon for audiences to chortle at, while awkward moments about boating and costumes balls invited dark guffaws. Though in films like Sightseers, High-Rise and Free Fire, Wheatley has shown a flair for subversive and dark jokes, he bleeds dry the humor here. This choice undermines upper-class criticism and certainly makes this film far less fun. The only laugh to be found comes at the expense of the new Mrs. de Winter. While taking her on the tour of the home, Danvers practically hisses, “I’m sorry. I thought you’d been a lady’s maid.” It’s not remotely amusing out of context. But within the film and with Thomas’s withering delivery, it’s shade meant to establish swiftly and stingingly that the new wife will not rule this house.
Wheatley’s made a name for himself with films that brandish ultra-violence and dangerous desires. In this, he might have set himself apart from Hitchcock’s classic, as it was made under the suffocating censorship of the Hays Code, which demanded studios tone down anything that might outrage audiences. Yet, he opts for bewildering restraint. Admittedly, the adapted screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse hews more closely to the novel in a climactic revelation. Plus, it makes explicit lesbian longing that was only implied in Hitchcock’s version. Nonetheless, for a story that is meant to be about sex and death, this film still feels shockingly tame.
The trouble begins with the couple’s first date, where they eat oysters together. This delicacy is notorious for not only its aphrodisiac qualities but also for the visual symbolism of a certain sexual act. Wheatley shows us the future Mrs. de Winter nervously swallowing an oyster, but when Rebecca cuts to Maxim, we’ve missed the money shot. Here was an easy opportunity for Wheatley to spark thirst for his devastatingly handsome leading man, and he wastes it. Then, instead of actually witnessing this defining date, Wheatley cuts to hours later, robbing of us of conversation and chemistry. A montage of gorgeous locations and Maxim in crisp resort wear is offered in place of any substance. A strange little sandcastle built on her shoulder blade is given as a substitute for actual sexual connection. When a love scene does come, it is as if Wheatley has no interest in its lust. It’s brief, shot chastely with hazy focus and no sounds of ragged breath or moans, just a gentle instrumental score. A scene discussing horse riding proves steamier.
I’m not just talking cheap thrills. To understand Rebecca’s heroine, you must understand what would urge her to throw away the life she knew on a whim to run off forever with a man she barely knows. We might be swept up in the wave of passion she feels, but Wheatley seems uninterested in building any justification for her choice beyond he looks like Armie Hammer. If she were a fool, that might be reason enough. But the script suggests that while she is naïve about the ways of the absurdly wealthy, Mrs. de Winter’s is a ruthlessly clever girl in other regards. So, this idealism doesn’t really click comfortably, especially as James carries with her a sharp glare that suggests a sharp mind.
Remakes That Are Better Than the Original