“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” begins both Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 best-seller “Rebecca” and nearly every adaptation of the Gothic novel that has followed, including Alfred Hitchcock’s atmospheric 1940 best picture winner. With such a definitive version already on the books, why reboot “Rebecca”? Well, as the opening line itself suggests, one can and does return to the film’s tragi-romantic estate — shrouded in fog and mystery as it is — as often as one pleases. A fresh take may be foolhardy, but it’s not without interest, and “High Rise” director Ben Wheatley aims to entice those who may be visiting for the first time.
If Rebecca was the first Mrs. de Winter, and Joan Fontaine’s character was the second, what does that make the two wives in Wheatley’s latest update? The third and fourth? Or thirty-first and -second? No doubt, many out there have never read du Maurier’s novel, nor seen any version thereof. Those audiences are the most likely target for this retro-styled period thriller distributed by Netflix, which will inevitably be compared with Hitchcock’s first American production, on which the budding British auteur melded visions with classic Hollywood producer David O. Selznick.
That makes Hitch’s “Rebecca” the Rebecca to this remake: The earlier film looms so large over anything Wheatley does that it necessarily gives the new project an inferiority complex. But neither the director nor his writing team (“Stardust” scribe Jane Goldman, aided by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) is trying to do a straightforward remake here. Their “Rebecca” is more of a re-adaptation, restoring certain key ideas that the Hays Code (Hollywood’s playbook for self-censoring from the mid-1930s till the late ’60s) scrubbed clean.
In du Maurier’s novel, a young woman of modest origins (played here by Lily James) is swept off her feet by recent widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, looking more than ever like a vintage J.C. Leyendecker model) while accompanying her fussbudget employer (Ann Dowd) in Monte Carlo. Romance sparks quickly — as all things are wont to do in this unusually combustible drama — and before our heroine has time to make sense of her emotions, she’s being escorted back to Manderley, Maxim’s castle-like British manor, which is perched precariously close to a wall of steep Cornish cliffs. This vertiginous arrangement was a running theme in du Maurier’s work, as “My Cousin Rachel” reminds, leaving audiences with the quietly perturbing unease that individual characters, if not the entire situation, could plunge to their peril at any given moment.
Whatever heat Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter (it’s a conspicuous detail in du Maurier’s commentary on gender roles and the gross power imbalance in this particular marriage that her first name is never spoken) enjoyed on the Riviera takes a dour turn once they return to Manderley — a place that is haunted by the memory of Rebecca, and hovered over by head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, the casting of whom feels like the film’s true raison d’être).
Mrs. Danvers is one of those iconic female roles — like Lady Macbeth — whose influence resurfaces throughout modern cinema, complicated by the queer subtext actor Judith Anderson insinuated in her original performance. The temptation must have been great to camp it up, but Thomas makes the more effective choice of revealing dimensions of her motivations, even if her “love” of her mistress loses some of the ambiguity that made classic Mrs. Danvers such an unnerving villain. It is she, not Maxim, who grieves the loss of the original Mrs. de Winter most, and Thomas’ interpretation is effective enough that we’re not measuring her against whatever image Anderson burned into our heads long ago.
There are no literal ghosts in “Rebecca” — no figures roaming the halls draped in white sheets, no semi-see-through specters lurking in the background. But this is every bit a ghost story in the sense that the title character is never seen, most certainly dead, and yet her presence can be felt looming over every aspect of the film. Psychologically, the movie makes an expert study of the insecurities anyone feels when stepping into another person’s shoes, aligning audiences with James’ perspective to the degree that we share in her paranoia: the suspicion that the entire staff is judging her and gossiping behind her back. She simply can’t believe that her studly new husband might have seen something in her that was preferable to the perfection that everyone attributes to the previous Mrs. de Winter — although maybe that has more to do with Mrs. Danvers’ adulation of her late mistress.
For about three-quarters of the running time, “Rebecca” does a respectable job of navigating between respect for the source and establishing its own distinct identity. And then, at precisely the moment where it stands to make a few enlightened improvements — when Maxim reveals his involvement in Rebecca’s disappearance, forcing his new wife to make a tough choice — this Rolls-Royce of an adaptation veers off the road. The idea was clearly to boost the agency of James’ character, making her more actively involved in clearing her husband’s name. But she has been a doe-eyed imbecile until this point (watch how long it takes her just to figure out that Rebecca drowned), so the third-act Nancy Drew routine doesn’t really fly — nor is it even necessary to put the case to rest.
There was an opportunity here for the macabre-minded Wheatley to steer “Rebecca” into darker territory, but he and longtime DP Laurie Rose have instead embraced an elegant, golden-hued idea of the 1930s that feels as far from Hitchcock’s sinister realm of impressionistic shadows as Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is from Wheatley’s own “Kill List.” His update opens in the decadent glow of “To Catch a Thief,” then allows the exquisite production and costume design to clash with that feeling the new Mrs. de Winter must have that there are termites swarming beneath all these decadent surfaces — which has been a signature of Wheatley’s other films until now.
In a way, the director seems to have fallen into a similar trap to the one that snared Hitchcock: In both versions, the producers take a dominant hand, overriding some of the directors’ instincts. Here, it was the idea of the team at Working Title — who’ve gambled on unconventional talent to direct beloved literary properties in the past, which is how the world got Joe Wright’s modern spin on “Pride & Prejudice” — to hire Wheatley for the project. But one suspects that maybe they didn’t let him go as dark as his instincts could have taken the material, making this return to Manderley a bit more combustible.