Director Ben Wheatley – best known for films of visceral violence and horror, including Kill List and A Field in England – has been at pains to distance his Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1940 film. “Remaking a film is not that interesting to me,” he told Empire magazine. “But the original source material is.”
It’s understandable that Wheatley wants to avoid the comparison. Even with its mannered performances and tropes of 80 years ago, Hitchcock’s remains the superior film – more subtle, more sharp, more cruel and more disturbing.
Wheatley’s instinct seems, to me, to be correct: Rebecca is ripe for a bold contemporary reinterpretation. What we’re given instead is a wan, crudely written amble through the major plot points of du Maurier’s novel.
Bafflingly, Wheatley plumps for the shallowest possible interpretation. “I wanted to make something that had more love in it,” he said in the same interview, explaining his shift away from gore. “Rebecca has dark elements, and it has a psychological, haunting story within it, but it’s also about these two people in love. That was the main thing.”
As with Wuthering Heights – a novel that includes some of the most sadistic scenes in English literature – the idea that Rebecca is primarily a romantic love story seems a triumph of willed delusion. Du Maurier was, after all, the queen of Cornish Gothic.
Rebecca is told in the first person by a classically unreliable narrator, played in Wheatley’s version by a rather too pretty Lily James. She is a naive, awkward, extremely romantic young woman who is swept breathlessly off her feet by a wealthy older man, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). After a brutally brief courtship, he marries her and takes her home to his West Country mansion, Manderley, where she is daunted by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who jealously regards her as an interloper, and also by the lingering presence of de Winter’s dead first wife, Rebecca.
As in the tale of Bluebeard, the house is full of forbidden rooms and dark secrets. Du Maurier’s novel presents the absent Rebecca as the incarnation of transgressive female desire – an aspect, some critics argue, of du Maurier’s own conflicted self, in which her bisexuality and “mannish” writing warred against her conventional acceptances of wifehood and motherhood. “[Rebecca] had all the courage and spirit of a boy,” says Mrs Danvers at one point, with a “queer, ecstatic smile” on her lips. “She did what she liked, she lived as she liked.”
The nameless narrator assumes without question – and many readers have followed this assumption – that Rebecca’s wilfulness and rampantly expressed sexuality are “evil”; but perhaps the real evil here is that our romantic hero literally gets away with murder.
Du Maurier’s story is sufficiently ambiguous that sympathies can be argued either way. There are enough barbs to invite other judgements from the reader – suggestions that, rather than being the “moral filth” that destroys Maxim’s life, Rebecca is the only honest person in the story. “This Mrs de Winter,” a doctor tells Maxim in the major reveal at the end of the book, “wasn’t the type to accept a lie. You must have known that.”
The screenplay – written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse – excises all this moral ambiguity, and with it all the subtextual tension of the story. It becomes a straightforward narrative of a devoted woman reaching her apotheosis by saving her tormented man.
As the central couple, James and Hammer are curiously bland. If it weren’t for the melodramatic dramaturgy – which vamps up what’s missing in the subtext with increasingly absurd plotting – it would be tempting to think their insipid performances are a deliberate comment on their moral vapidity.
There’s a ghost of du Maurier’s energy in Kristin Scott Thomas’s coldly sensual performance as Mrs Danvers, one of the film’s few high points. Mrs Danvers’ smouldering passion for Rebecca might be the only real love in the story, but even Scott Thomas can’t disrupt the syrupy heterosexual sentimentalism that kills this story dead.
It feels more like a pale remake of Hitchcock than a new take on du Maurier. It’s a shame – du Maurier’s disturbing ambiguities resonate strongly in our conflicted present, but this adaptation pushes her story back into a safely nostalgic past.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Pale remake".
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