Film Review: Rebecca
Sophistication comes with a price
By The Film Addict
Editor’s note: While we have been covering film and TV in Storius Direct, our materials have been mostly focused on filmmakers themselves and less on the films and shows they make. With this review, we begin adding film reviews—or rather film analysis—to our email edition. As always, your feedback is very welcome. To share your thoughts, you can simply reply to this mail.
Rebecca might easily be the most interesting film offering from Netflix to date, but is it also the most exciting? It is mind-boggling to know that one of the freshest concepts that eventually materialized into a Netflix original film came from a material that is more than 60 years old. Forget about the mercenary’s tale, the group of immortals or the superhero-pills — this, is the most sophisticated blend among its peers. But sophistication sometimes comes with a price, and the most haunting question that looms over Rebecca is — what does it cost?
Does it need award-winning actors and actresses with monstrous amounts of acting range to make it work? Or will it cost the viewers their engagement in order to stay truthful to the origin material? All in all, Rebecca is certainly not a project that any crew can hastily tamper around and say, “Voila! Film adaptation!”. Which is why the effort by Netflix and director Ben Wheatley to give Rebecca her second run via modern television screens a pretty commendable one, regardless of the outcome.
Little did I know that the trend of not giving film protagonists names dates back to the 40’s. Sorry, Tenet, before you, Rebecca was there first. Of course, I am referring to the first Rebecca of Rebecca-films, one directed by renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Naturally, Wheatley is happy to conserve this significant trait from the 1940 film, and thus, Lily James was signed to portray this unnamed lady — referred to only as mademoiselle — perhaps in a similar way with how John David Washington hopped onto Nolan’s train armed only with one word — protagonist.
James’ character designation does not stay long, however, as she will soon be known as ‘Mrs de Winter’ after a fateful encounter with a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Their honeymoon ends when the ‘new’ Mrs de Winter moves into Maxim’s enormous mansion famously known as Manderley, where she has to face the estate’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). By now, you would have guessed correctly that Rebecca is actually the name of Maxim’s first wife, and elsewhere, key characters who help to shape the mademoiselle’s fate include Rebecca’s cousin, Jack Favell (Sam Riley), and Maxim’s sister, Beatrice Lacy (Keeley Hawes).
There is a fair distinction between keeping the mademoiselle unnamed and giving her a valid name, and it is sufficiently noticeable as we progress further into Rebecca. In-line with the spirit of du Maurier’s novel and Hitchcock’s film, keeping her name unmentioned applies a strong disparaging remark against her initial status, which signals the viewers that it is even more difficult for her to fit into the grandiose title of ‘Mrs de Winter’ within the story. Giving her any name at all, beautiful or not, will come much as a parody towards the original material, which Wheatley probably knew very well that it’s best to avoid.
Plot-wise, Rebecca is like a meal with two appetizers and a main course. The first appetizer is light, sweet and cheeky, which has been translated from the brewing romance between the mademoiselle and Maxim. Of course, there are little hints of darker turns of events that are about to come, which slowly build up your curiosity. Still, Rebecca’s initial theme is strongly about romance, which lures you further into the story with sweetness. Yes, at that point in time, I was eagerly anticipating the ‘main course’, which was still a big unknown to me.
Then came the second act, which served pretty much as a second appetizer. This round, it is clearly more intense. There is a great air of mystery on what you are actually experiencing, and you are being led to believe that there is something extremely paranormal and sinister lurking around Manderley from the moment you witness the mademoiselle’s first footsteps on the estate’s soil. The vast mansion and constant discovery of mysterious artifacts transmit a similar and creepy vibe of Claire Redfield exploring the quiet RPD station, that is, if you are a former Resident Evil 2 player.
But as the second act transcends the limits of being mysterious into something a little more creepy, it also begins to invite some boredom, perhaps because of the extended play. It was fairly watchable by the midpoint mark, and as I grew hungrier towards the finale, I began to realize that the last act will likely make or break Rebecca.
Then, there it was — the final act that I had been anxiously waiting for, kicking off with a big reveal. It was anything but wild or shocking, and needless to say, I was dumbfounded. “That’s it. The film goes off a cliff”. I just couldn’t shrug off that impression, as I saw how Rebecca seemingly disappeared backstage, changed outfit, and re-emerged as someone who was barely even recognizable. All the good qualities that defined Rebecca during the first two acts were gone, and the final act feels like it’s made of materials cut from an entirely different film altogether.
Any sense of prestige and creepiness surrounding Manderley would have been gone by now, as the final act races towards a climax which practically whimpers instead of giving out a loud bang. Just when it is a pretty darn good time for the credits to roll, Rebecca pulls you back into another chapter of events that — although will be appreciated by readers of the novel — will certainly come across as an unpolished afterthought for the fresh viewers. The sad news is, these are not made up by Wheatley — I have referenced them with available info for du Maurier’s novel and Hitchcock’s film, and they are mainly the same.
Had Armie Hammer and Lily James both given a phenomenal performance, I reckon that things would have fared a lot better for Rebecca. As I have mentioned, Rebecca isn’t really the kind of film that any filmmaker can conveniently undertake and pull off a flawless job. That person has to make things exciting and transition varying phases of the film without a hiccup — while having to stay faithful to the original material. Tweaking it too much, and remarks like “butchering Hitchcock’s masterpiece” and “botched film-version of du Maurier’s classic novel” will march into Wheatley’s inbox.
Though Rebecca’s story progression and approach could still benefit from a great amount of polishing, there’s just so much that the director and writers could do. Beyond that, it largely depends on the casts to inject depth and meaning into the scenes, which are clearly restrained with otherwise an unathletic pace. Are James’ and Hammer’s performances both that bad? No, not at all. I bet that with a snap of a finger, Hammer could easily transform into a charming, wealthy Englishman and clear the security checks to the world’s most prestigious events. But when Maxim becomes increasingly proficient and frequent in turning away from his new wife’s call for help, it all turns out a little synthetic and unnatural.
Lily James, on the other hand, is believably helpless — a prerequisite to playing mademoiselle, I could see — but there is little distinction to separate whether she had been helpless against the events that befell on her or the demanding character that she had to play. There is not much contrast between her mademoiselle during the first 15 minutes of the film versus the last 15 minutes, which is rather naive considering the Manderley ‘boot-camp’ that the character has endured.
Oddly, the best performer of Rebecca is none other than Kristin Scott Thomas, who had nailed almost every script and every scene that’s been passed onto her hands, despite her reasonably small chunk of screen-time compared to James’ and Hammer’s. It is only fair to mention that even at 2 hours long, Rebecca does not feel like a slog to begin with, but nonetheless with the entrance of Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers, finally, Rebecca has a strong, rooted character for the others to pivot around.
Rebecca might spell good news for Netflix viewers and moviegoers who have an acquired taste towards all things vintage, and demand a sophisticated blend of romance, thrills, and horror. Viewers who have a clear idea of what lies within the pages of du Maurier’s classic novel will easily be at peace with the film, or even appreciate the tiny reinterpretations which Wheatley has dusted across the film. For those who are less exposed to the novel, however, the film will most likely appear to you as 3 differing films stitched together. The bad news? The worst of the trio belongs in the final act — The Film Addict
Jeff is the founding member of The Film Addict, where he shares his views and analysis on the latest Hollywood movies and film industry news that matters.