Dir: Ben Wheatley. Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley. 12A, 122 mins
In his 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock gave us Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as the tragic lovers of Daphne du Maurier’s great Gothic romance – the former proud and brooding, the latter a delicate, shivering flower. Here, we get Armie Hammer and Lily James, both horribly miscast, resembling two planks of wood smashing into each other. Hammer has always been most interesting as a villain, corporate suit, or total goofball. Here, as the wealthy and mysterious Maxim de Winter, for whom James’s clumsy naïf falls head over heels, he seems utterly uncomfortable in the role of leading man.
It’s as if all his three-piece suits were scratching at his skin. Oh, the suits! There’s an unsightly mustard number he wears several times in Monte Carlo (did he not pack enough?) that’s already started to pill. It looks crinkled, too. Combined with James’s wide-legged trousers and striped jumpers, the pair possess all the glamour of a Marks and Spencer ad.
In du Maurier’s 1938 novel, we meet this woman, the second Mrs de Winter, before her marriage, when she’s both unnamed and rather shapeless. She’s easily consumed by the glow of the older, wealthier, more authoritative Maxim. They meet in Monte Carlo. He proposes to her, whisks her off to his coastal estate in Manderley. But there’s a shadow that lives among them. It’s the unseen but phantasmic presence of Maxim’s previous wife Rebecca, etched into the stone, the ornaments, and the heart of housekeeper Mrs Danvers.
Maybe the second Mrs de Winter could have just taken a cue from director Ben Wheatley. His Rebecca ducks out from under Hitchcock’s shadow by striving to be its exact opposite – light where once it was dark, smooth where once it was jagged. If the second Mrs de Winter had done the same, at least she’d no longer be considered the “second” to anything. No, she’d be immediately asked to pack her things and leave. This dreary, garish take on Rebecca never justifies its presence.
James, for one, seems to have been cast in order to prop up the character’s paper-thin feminist makeover, provided by screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. She has a more active part to play here, turning semi-detective on her husband. But the actor’s expressions are always pristine and hopeful, to the point that her character loses all the psychological torment that made the book such a ravishing pleasure. Besides, it was already a feminist work, plunging into the world of gaslighting and romantic insecurity. And while Kristin Scott Thomas is an ideal Mrs Danvers on paper, the efforts to make her more sympathetic to viewers only declaw her, robbing her of the all-consuming (potentially sexual) obsession that made her one of literature’s great villains.
These are baffling choices for Wheatley, who made his name with dark, taut thrillers like Kill List and High-Rise. Both Monte Carlo and Manderley are staged like Tatler spreads, slick and luxurious in every moment. It would have been a bold choice for a director to tell one of the great Gothic stories with such a vibrant palette, but Wheatley never truly dedicates himself to the task. There are too many pretty, hollow distractions along the way. The pace becomes chaotic, like someone rifling through a cabinet searching for whatever stimulation they can find – kisses, tears, expensive cars. This Rebecca is du Maurier reduced to an airport novel.