Review by William J. Hammon, of the I Actually Paid to See This blog
Movie remakes are oftentimes a dubious proposal at best. Most of the time I even adhere to a personal rule not to watch them – and certainly not to spend money on them – unless I’m given a really compelling reason to do so, like, say, the Coen Brothers taking a crack at True Grit. But for every one of those gems, there are hundreds of worthless rocks. For every Maltese Falcon (yes, the Humphrey Bogart classic was in fact a remake) there are a thousand “live-action” Lion Kings.
But even within this usually cynical cash-grab of a sub-genre, there are two things you simply do not do. One is to remake a Best Picture winner, which Steven Zaillian learned the hard way with the 2006 remake of All the King’s Men, which bombed with critics and audiences. He hasn’t directed a film since, though he’s gotten plenty of praise as a writer (Oscar-nominated for The Irishman this year and winning for Schindler’s List). The other is to remake an Alfred Hitchcock film. Anyone who saw the jaw-droppingly horrible shot-for-shot remake of Psycho can attest to that.
Well now, director Ben Wheatley, who normally specializes in horror so he should have some idea what he’s doing, has performed the double-whammy of directing a remake of Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. In this bland, toothless retelling, all the subtlety, nuance, and suspense are gone from the 1940 classic, replaced by one-note performances, lazy plotting, and tired gaslighting clichés.
You can tell right from the off that this is going to be a slog. After a near exact repeat of the opening to the original film, where the nameless second Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) narrates a dream about the long-lost palatial Manderley estate, the scene cuts to Monte Carlo, where she meets her eventual husband, Maxim de Winter, this time played by Armie Hammer. In the original film, their meeting is a tense, dramatic moment, as she comes upon Maxim standing on a rocky ledge, looking down at the water. Joan Fontaine, carrying her sketchbook because she has this weird thing called a character trait, expresses concern for the man, who quickly shoos her away, her presence breaking him from a daze expressed perfectly by Laurence Olivier using his eyes alone. From there we see Maxim run into the young lady at their shaded hotel, where she works as a hired companion for an oblivious socialite named Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates in the original, Ann Dowd here). There’s witty dialogue exchanged by all sides, and Maxim takes a liking to the woman, enough to invite her out and get to know her, thus the courtship begins which sets the rest of the film’s events in motion.
In this version, however, all of that’s gone. There’s no insightful close-up of Armie Hammer’s face to hint at his inner torment. In fact, he never even goes to the cliff. Instead, he and his future wife have a meet-cute in the hotel cafe, where a host makes a point to tell her how unwelcome someone of her social stature is while she’s trying to book a table next to Maxim, unaware that he’s standing right behind her. Instead of clever repartee, his interest in her begins as pity before transitioning to an escape from boredom to finally raw animal lust (which, I get it, it’s Lily James after all). On top of that, Mrs. Van Hopper is completely insufferable, a constant reminder of the girl’s station in life and unworthiness of any happiness rather than the grand dame she was in the original. It’s telling that each film takes about 25 minutes to get through this section of the story. But whereas Olivier and Fontaine spent that time learning about each other and fostering a mutual affection based on character moments, here we have Ann Dowd vomiting into a bucket, to the point where Maxim and his new bride’s wedding feels completely rushed because we spent so much time on trivial shit like watching Maxim drive his car around Monaco.
By the time we get to Manderley and begin the real meat of the story, one can’t help but already feel exhausted. The introduction of Mrs. Danvers, the lead housekeeper, was a huge turn in the original film, as Judith Anderson created an aura of intimidation and mystery. When we meet her in this film, now played (ably enough given the script) by Kristin Scott Thomas, the expectations have already been set extremely low, thanks to Hammer’s delivery of “I hate when they do this,” upon seeing the staff lined up to greet the new couple. We’re told immediately to hate and distrust the house staff rather than discovering the genuine and sinister aspects for ourselves. For a story that at its core is a simple gothic mystery that thrives on atmosphere and mood, that bit of fun for the audience is ruined by constant hand-holding from the script, to the point where a dog literally leads Mrs. de Winter to THREE major plot points (this only happened once in the original, so it seemed less trite).
The beauty of the original film was its ability to create this crippling sense of loneliness for its heroine, because as the second Mrs. de Winter, she lives in the shadow of the idealized Rebecca, who died before the events of the story. Part of the reason Daphne du Maurier never gave her main character a name was because she wanted to create this isolation. She’s living with Rebecca’s ghost, figuratively speaking, but she’s the one who feels like an intruding phantom, because all of Manderley is strewn with reminders of her. This is also why Mrs. Danvers is such a great villain, because her obsession with Rebecca initially comes across as a matter of fact and procedure, only truly turning on the new Mrs. de Winter after she orders Danvers to get rid of some of Rebecca’s things. She took an action to finally replace Rebecca, and Danvers wouldn’t stand for it, revealing her wicked nature at last.
In this film, on the other hand, Danvers is always hostile, sneaking up on Mrs. de Winter in the oddest of places, drilling Rebecca’s alleged superiority into her new employer’s head at every opportunity, and basically doing a more overt version of the class shaming that Mrs. Van Hopper did in the first act. Even the climactic heel turn comes not from Mrs. de Winter asserting her position, but from trying to befriend Danvers after an onslaught of gaslighting about how all of her insecurities are her own fault. In the original, Mrs. de Winter was an active element in her own story. Things happened because of her. Here, everything just happens to her with no real explanation or motivation.
There is one element where I will applaud the film, however, and that is in the production design. This is the only place where the movie strikes an individual cord to separate itself from Hitchcock’s masterpiece, without diminishing it in any way. In the first film, Manderley is a giant place, with confusing corridors and rooms that leave Mrs. de Winter feeling lost in the vast ocean that the mansion overlooks. There’s even a really nice quick moment where she has to go upstairs to go downstairs when summoned. Hitchcock’s use of cameras, lighting, and a score by Franz Waxman that changed moods on a dime gave the whole house this massive feeling of being alive, yet hollow and mostly empty (save some wall portraits), which added to Mrs. de Winter’s feelings of isolation.
On the other hand, this version of Manderley is expertly appointed. The rooms are still huge and the hallways labyrinthine, but they’re also filled with props and decorations, becoming a cluttered mass of relics to the excess of the idle rich. Because she’s not used to the world of luxury, and because she’s mostly on her own when Maxim goes away on business, all these accoutrements give an added feeling of claustrophobia, which is very much to the film’s credit. The few times I could actually engage with the film, it was in watching Lily James trying to navigate around giant rooms with almost no space to move.
Apart from that, though, this film is a dud. Maybe it’s the more accurate version of du Maurier’s book (I haven’t read it, but I do know that the film at least portrays Rebecca’s demise slightly more in line with the source material), but it’s in no way as entertaining. Armie Hammer and Lily James are fine actors, and I normally enjoy their work. And yeah, maybe it’s a bit unfair to try to hold them to the very high standard of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, but their performances are largely wooden and detached. All the emotion and intrigue has been stripped away from the original in favor of brighter vistas, the already worn out leitmotif of gaslighting the heroine, and a CGI flock of ominous birds in the background, which is honestly just insulting to our intelligence. Remaking a Best Picture winner AND a Hitchcock classic was always going to be a tall order, but without atmosphere, committed performances, pathos, and genuine mystery in the plotting, this doesn’t even measure up to “okay.”