Right off the bat, I have to state that I am not going to bother talking about the Alfred Hitchcock 1941 version of Rebecca. I have seen comparisons left, right and centre. This iteration deserves to be viewed instead on its own merits. With comparisons made only to Daphne du Marier’s novel, for better or worse. So now that we have that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to the review!
With a great cast and wonderful source material, Rebecca falls disappointingly flat in a misfire of a feature from Ben Wheatley.
A whirlwind romance sees a new Mrs De Winter (Lily James) enter the Manderley Estate. Mrs De Winter must deal with the remnants of the former lady of the house and her staff, primarily the housekeeper Mrs Danver (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is not keen on the younger lady. Mrs De Winters troubles continue when her husband Maxim’s (Armie Hammer) mood switches as soon as he is back home. Secrets and lies fill the estate as the ghost of Rebecca remains.
An issue that arises with Rebecca is that it simply takes too long for our loved up couple to get to Manderley Estate. Almost 30 minutes are taken up showing us this whirlwind romance when in truth half of that was required. If it is indeed a whirlwind it should feel as such to the audience also. The editing and scenes should be short and sweet to show us the connection between the two. With their as well as our breaths firmly caught by how quickly things have gone. Instead, Rebecca dawdles unnecessarily too many times to take advantage of what it has.
What follows is decent work once we get to the estate. The story flows as it should and you begin to get compelled. Then that final act happens and it is a disaster. In the novel, Mrs De Winter verges on genius with her cunning and detective skills. Doing everything the police couldn’t, to save the man she loves. Here in this retelling, she is merely a half a step in front of the police who are investigating the death of Rebecca. She isn’t brilliant and if anything would be considered a hindrance to the entire piece. This loss is too much for the film and to foolishly throw it away as they do here is unforgivable.
Where we can complement Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose is that they have filmed a visually gorgeous film. Beautiful shots such as the slow pan when Mrs de Winter is walking along the shoreline after Jasper stand out as much as the framing of when we are in the mansion. Much like Mrs De Winter, she is free when not in the house and the camera flows wonderfully around as she explores and tightens in suffocating way when in the house. It is a nice touch and one of the few times we see Wheatley flex his directorial muscles.
Wheatley struggles to start with the script he was given. A script that feels like a diluted version of the book when in fact it needed to go further than the novel so that Wheatley could make it his piece. Rebecca seemed like the wrong project for him. Wheatley is the type of filmmaker that sees angles that others would not. This is sometimes to his own detriment as he can be hit or miss. With Rebecca, he makes the error of playing it too safe with the script and direction.
Nothing about Rebecca stands out and for a story that is so strong, that is somehow impossible to imagine before viewing it. The writers failed this film and made it a paint by numbers flick. All suspense is gone from the film early on and the script never tries to claim it back and if not for the performances of James and Scott Thomas this would have been so much worse.
With our cast, a lot of the heavy lifting is required from Lily James. She is meant to be the heart of the film and she struggles here. Trying so hard to make her character interesting and noteworthy. So much so that she pushes slightly into the overacting territory. At times she is brilliant and carries the plot very well with Kristin Scott Thomas ably supporting her as Mrs Danvers. She tries to get something out of the lacklustre script that her portrayal falls into caricature. Being in almost constant tears and confused by all of the events does not allow for a performer such as James to excel in a role that should be her bread and butter.
She is trying everything to liven up the film that she accidentally showcases the glaring script issues with it. James’ character is so underwritten and hamstrung by the poor script that James is forced into an unenviable position.
Armie Hammer is so stoic and brooding until the last act that he may as well have had a statue stand in for him. He does not help James in the slightest and he disappoints here as Maxim. He remains to stone-faced for too long that you wonder what these two saw in each other in the first place. For someone who is a fan of Hammer, he is uncharacteristically flat.
Ben Wheatley visually vibrant adaptation fails at the part that should have been the easiest to manage, the script. Rebecca is a disappointingly flat film that is only salvageable due to the efforts of James and Scott Thomas. A forgettable film.
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