Rebecca, released on Netflix in October last year, is a relatively faithful adaptation of Hitchcock’s original film masterpiece (rather than of du Maurier’s book). Helmed by Ben Wheatley, who until this had carved out a niche in alternative horror, with films such as Kill List and A Field in England being acclaimed as interesting and ground-breaking horror stories that revitalised independent British horror films pushing them away from a jump-scare style and further towards the sort of psychological, disturbing thrillers that have also become increasingly popular in America – Robert Eggers, who directed The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2020), is probably Wheatley’s transatlantic equivalent. Rebecca certainly isn’t a horror film on the level of Kill List or A Field in England: there is none of Wheatley’s trademark brutal violence here. The problem is, there’s not much of anything else either.
The story follows the same lines as both the Hitchcock version and Du Maurier’s novel. A nameless and penniless young personal assistant in Monte Carlo (Lily James) falls for the charming but haunted aristocrat Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer) and is whisked away back to his ancestral home, where she meets sinister retainer Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who makes her feel uncomfortable and constantly compares her to Maxim’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca.
First things first: this remake feels pointless. Remaking Hitchcock has always been a strangely difficult thing to get right, with only Hitchcock himself succeeding (His own remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is arguably better than his original version). Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho feels deeply unnecessary, and while this Rebecca isn’t shot-for-shot, it certainly doesn’t add enough of its own ideas to the original to feel necessary.
Topping the original performances of Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier was always going to be a hard ask, but the romantic leads here really aren’t up to scratch, both of them feeling flat and uninspired. One can believe that Hitchcock’s Rebecca would have married Olivier’s De Winter, whereas imagining Hammer as sufficiently interesting for such a reportedly hard-to please woman is difficult. Kristin Scott Thomas tries her best as Mrs Danvers, but is sometimes let down by the words the script puts in her mouth. The best performer is Sam Riley in a secondary role as Jack Favell, Rebecca’s lover – he is convincingly repellent; his apparent success here may, however, be partly because this character gets less screen-time in Hitchcock’s version, where he is well-played by the excellent George Sanders.
The film has a definite Netflix TV movie look to it (as hard as Netflix films try to look cinematic, they just can’t seem to escape the shackles of the small screen), with uninspired colour schemes – everything is too bright or too dark, too filtered – and a disappointingly tepid rhythm, never either surprising or contemplative. At least one of the changes to the ending (involving Kristin Scott Thomas) is totally unnecessary; it feels crass, tone-deaf and almost laughably corny, especially when compared to the fiery climax of Hitchcock’s version. The tone of the film is neither dark enough for such changes to feel natural nor upbeat enough for them to feel unexpected.
There is a feeling throughout that nothing particularly scary is happening here. Ironically, Wheatley, when he was attached to this project, could certainly have been expected to
turn the remake into something more horror-orientated. Instead, if anything, it’s less scary than Hitchcock’s original, with very little tension or threat at all. It brings home the way in which, in Hitchcock’s version, deliberate and social limits on what could be shown and said (the use of black and white, the absence of any open references to sex, the unreliable narrator) are used to make the viewer feel uncertain and off-balance. In the modern version the atmospherics – dreamlike scenes where nothing happens but one is intended to feel uneasy, and which, in Hitchcock’s version, are so effective – fall flat. All in all, a disappointment.