Considering the psychological damage that love wreaks on people, I’m surprised that romance and horror aren’t more frequent bedfellows. The two genres have never been so perfectly intertwined as with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and the book was famously adapted in 1940 into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. Eighty years later and now director Ben Wheatley attempts a new adaptation of the story that works to fit in his sensibilities along with those of contemporary audiences. To Wheatley’s credit, he excels at what makes Rebecca so terrifying—the horrific notion of the idealized woman whose mere memory exists to make everyone feel inadequate. But the more Wheatley has to ground the story in what happened to Rebecca de Winter, the more he loses her ethereal, phantom power. In a film that’s gorgeously realized from a craft perspective, the storytelling stumbles become even harder to ignore.
Working as a traveling companion to the wealthy Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) on a getaway in Monte Carlo, a young woman (Lily James) crosses paths with the handsome and enigmatic Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Beguiled by each other, the two begin a passionate affair, and when Van Hopper plans to leave Monte Carlo, Maxim decides he and the young woman must be married so he can whisk her away to his palatial estate on the English coast, Manderley. There, the new Mrs. de Winter confronts the overbearing legacy of Maxim’s late wife Rebecca. Oppressed by Maxim’s mood swings, Rebecca’s lingering presence, and the domineering housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the young woman struggles to maintain her sanity and identity.
Comparing Hitchcock’s version to Wheatley does neither any favors (Hitchcock is a legend and Wheatley doesn’t labor under the Production Code), and it’s fair to say that Wheatley has put his own stamp on the material that makes this feel like a fresh adaptation despite the fact that Hitchcock’s 1940 film is a stone-cold classic. Where Wheatley puts his emphasis is on how small the new Mrs. de Winter feels. That’s an inherent part of the story, but Wheatley uses some psychedelic touches to play up the psychological horror aspect that no matter what identity you have, you will never be deemed “good enough.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a feminist critique, but you instantly sympathize with James’ portrayal of a world that exists to tell her, “You will never be good enough because you are not this perfect woman, who is dead.”
By emphasizing this subtext, Wheatley is able to hit at the loneliness and isolation felt by Mrs. de Winter and the horror her surroundings impose. The idea that you will never be the ideal woman and are therefore unworthy of love is a scary notion, and Wheatley draws that out beautifully through the first two acts, first with Dowd’s vicious performance and then Scott’s unforgettable turn once the newlyweds arrive at Manderley, not to mention the way Maxim uses Mrs. de Winter as a lifeboat for his wounded psyche. James, for her part, holds it altogether, showing her impressive acting range as her character’s insecurities and fears come to dominate her identity.
This approach is further anchored by the exquisite craftsmanship as Wheatley weaves together a visually lush and romantic backdrop that can turn sinister when the director demands it. From the icy coldness of Rebecca’s bedroom to the haunting landscapes surrounding Manderley, Wheatley is adept at conveying tone and character through space, and it makes for an effective film where he doesn’t even need to rely on his cast when his frame and mise-en-scene say so much.
Unfortunately, it all starts to unravel when the film hits the third act. Without spoiling anything, the story forces Rebecca to start entering the realm of the real rather than a vengeful, malicious symbol, so the impact starts to fade. Wheatley never reclaims the power of the film’s first two acts, and there are other choices along the way that lessen the story’s gravity. The film doesn’t become “bad”, but it no longer has the magnetic, disturbing hold of Mrs. de Winter wrestling with Rebecca’s legacy, and instead tries to twist itself into an odd kind of “I’m a strong, independent woman who also stands by my man right-or-wrong” approach that never clicks. Part of what gives Rebecca its power is the melancholy of never feeling like you’ll be enough, so it’s awkward to end on an uplifting note considering what’s come before.
These stumbles are a bit disheartening, but it’s still kind of a miracle that Rebecca works as well as it does when you consider its legacy. Like the character of Rebecca looming over the new Mrs. de Winter, there’s an enervating power of being in the shadow of Hitchcock even if the filmmakers claim this is merely a new adaptation. Trying to find something fresh, especially when the 1940 adaptation has lost none of its power, is a daunting task, and Wheatley, as he has shown with his previous works, is nothing if not bold. The new Rebecca doesn’t always cohere, but when it comes together it has all of the unnerving, ghastly allure of the original story.