Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel “Rebecca” is no stranger to the stage or screen. Perhaps the most celebrated adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Academy Award Best Picture winner. It was Hitchcock’s very first American production and the first film in his rather bumpy seven-year deal with film producer and studio executive David O. Selznick.
Director Ben Wheatley is the latest to take a stab at this alluring romantic thriller working from a script written by the team of Jane Goldman, John Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. This new Netflix Original stars the vastly underrated Lily James, the busy Armie Hammer, and the always great Kristen Scott Thomas. It gets off to a strong start, smartly and smoothly manages its significant shift in tone, and then brings everything to light in a satisfying but hurried finale.
In “Rebecca” James plays a young woman working as an assistant to a wealthy and pompous crow named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Much like in Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel, James’ character is given no name yet we learn all we need to know about her through the unfolding story. We learn she comes from a meager background. She lost her parents two years earlier. She’s smart, loves sketching, and dreams of traveling which is why she works for the globetrotting Mrs. Van Hopper. “Everything I know is from books. I haven’t really experienced anything yet.” Oh how that is about to change.
The story gets going in Monte Carlo with the young woman and Mrs. Van Hopper settled in at the posh Hotel Regina. It’s the first of several instances where the movie explores the subject of class and upper-crust snobbery. The assistant is repeatedly reminded of her role as “staff” or “help”. She’s verbally belittled by her employer, denied dining privileges, and given those haughty, dismissive glances from the rich pampered guests. This is a theme that the film revisits later on.
While running errands for her boss the young woman repeatedly crosses paths with the tall, dashing aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Hammer). Against all odds, the two hit it off and begin a simmering summer romance. She is swept away by the charming yet mysterious Maxim, a recent widower who brushes aside any questions about his late wife Rebecca.
After a spur of the moment proposal, the two marry, have a brief honeymoon, and then settle into Maxim’s huge Manderley estate. It’s an almost mythological family property that has been passed from fathers to sons for generations. A beautiful and lavish mansion, Manderley resembles something plucked right out of a new bride’s storybook dream. But the new Mrs. de Winter quickly learns that her husband has his secrets and the memories of Rebecca haunt every room and every hall. To make matters worse she quickly finds herself at odds with the cold and devious Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the chief housekeeper with an uneasy attachment to Mandeley.
“Rebecca” may surprise those unfamiliar with its story. It turns a simply-looking romance built around naïveté and secrets into an unexpectedly empowering story driven by three very different women. The delightfully expressive Lily James makes an enchanting lead. Thomas imbues Mrs. Danvers with an unsettling menace. And the third woman, Rebecca herself, is someone we never really see. Yet the film does a terrific job showing the grip she maintains on Manderley well after her death. And the chilling echoes of her influence haunts her husband, their home, and really anyone close to her.
My biggest beef is with the last act. Wheatley flies through the final twenty minutes or so, covering so much ground in an effort to wrangle together the story’s numerous moving parts. It all comes together neatly enough, but you’ll need to be focused and locked in to keep it all together. Still, there’s so much to admire about this latest “Rebecca”. It maintains a wonderful period feel thanks to Julian Day’s costumes and Katie Spencer’s set design. Laurie Rose’s stellar cinematography vividly captures the beautiful sun-soaked Monte Carlo as well as the gloomy, atmospheric Mandeley. It’s anchored by a wonderful cast and a story that still has the same kick it’s had for 80+ years. “Rebecca” premieres October 21st on Netflix.