clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Rebecca’: A passable version of a story Hitchcock told much better

Lily James brings her usual sweet persona to the glossy, campy thriller.

Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, top), the head housekeeper at a massive family estate, is unkind to his employer’s new wife (Lily James) in “Rebecca.’
Netflix

The director of “Rebecca” is on record saying this is not a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1940 classic by Alfred Hitchcock, and that’s a smart move, because why would you want to remake one of the best movies ever made by one of the best directors of all time? Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name has been adapted numerous times, and I can say with great confidence:

This is one of those adaptations.

The 2020 “Rebecca” is passably entertaining as a glossy, campy, lurid, period-piece thriller featuring great-looking people doing stupid things, but if you’re going to watch a movie titled “Rebecca,” might I humbly suggest you watch the original and call it a night.

As for the not-remake: Lily James (“Downton Abbey,” “Baby Driver”) brings her usual persona of sweet and somewhat naïve charm to the role of the young “lady’s companion” aka personal assistant to the overbearing Mrs. Van Hopper (the great Ann Dowd, hamming it up), who treats her with utter disdain during a stay at a posh hotel in Monte Carlo. In movie meet-cute fashion, our heroine has a couple of awkward encounters with the fabulously dashing, ridiculously wealthy and recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), who lounges about like a movie star in fantastic mustard-yellow suits. Before you can say “let’s get this plot started,” the two are married, and Maxim takes Mrs. de Winter home to Manderley, the huge and imposing family estate on the South Coast of England. I mean, this place is so gigantic it could swallow Downton Abbey whole.

To say the new Mrs. de Winter is not greeted with open arms by the Manderley staff is an understatement. Most of the employees, who look like real-life versions of animated Tim Burton characters, skulk about the premises and avoid interacting with Mrs. de Winter if at all possible — but they’re downright welcoming compared to the icy head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who makes it clear no one can ever replace the beloved and saintly Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. In fact, the new Mrs. de Winter isn’t even allowed to step foot in the former bedroom of her predecessor, which has been kept intact like a shrine. Weirdly, Maxim does little to discourage Mrs. Danvers’ ill treatment of his new bride and even lashes out at her for perceived insults to his first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances that will eventually result in a sensational trial and some major reveals about the true nature of that supposedly idyllic union.

“Rebecca” has an appropriately dark, gothic horror look; Manderley is shot as one big haunted house, and director Ben Wheatley delivers some exquisitely frightening sequences. Alas, it becomes increasingly difficult to root for Mrs. de Winter, who behaves like a simpering fool most of the time and puts up with all sorts of nonsense from Mrs. Danvers and her husband before stomping her feet and asserting herself. Meanwhile, Armie Hammer is saddled with playing an uptight stiff who barely pays attention to his wife after he marries her, and Kristin Scott Thomas is a cartoon villain straight out of a B-movie. They’re all trapped not only in Manderley, but in an overwrought and underwhelming psychological thriller.