Movie Review: Netflix's 'Rebecca' A Handsome Failure
Netflix stumbles badly with handsome yet awful remake of 'Rebecca.'
The Netflix remake of the 1940 classic, Rebecca, suffers the fatal flaw of being unable to justify its own existence. Why was this made? What did the filmmakers want to say by remaking a movie that was already a timeless classic that still feels vital and alive today, minus some anachronistic sexism. Directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Lily James and Arme Hammer, this version of Rebecca loses much of what makes the original so special.
Rebecca is a love story about a naïve young woman without a name, played by Lily James, who falls for a rich and slightly older man, Mr de Winter, played by Armie Hammer. The young woman is not the first Mrs de Winter. As the story progresses, we are told that the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, died tragically in a boating accident two years earlier. Mr de Winter is believed to still be in mourning but that doesn’t stop him from romantically pursuing our young protagonist over the stern objections of her employer, Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd).
Less than two weeks after meeting, the handsome young duo are married and returning to England, to Manderley, Mr de Winter’s palace in the woods. A staple of generations of the de Winter family, Manderley has recently been predominately in the care of servants while Mr de Winter has been away. Leading the way is Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the house Matron who keeps everything in the home running smoothly.
Mrs Danvers was like a mother to Rebecca before her tragic death and their bond was such that Mrs Danvers has left everything at Manderley just as it was on the day that Rebecca died. Naturally, this creates an awkward and discordant relationship between the second Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers. It’s a relationship that does not improve no matter how much the second Mrs de Winter bends to the older woman’s will.
Rebecca is not a literal ghost but her presence is everywhere at Manderley and threatens to destroy the young, formerly happy newlyweds as the second Mrs de Winter keeps stumbling over new elements of Rebecca’s life and Mr de Winter keeps trying to push the memory of Rebecca away. Things come to a head with a costume ball and a nefarious bit of advice that kicks the movie from a tragic romance into a mystery and a courtroom drama.
Rebecca 1940 was directed with relish and fearsome wit by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock and while standards and practices of 1940’s society and censorship kept Hitchcock from making the nasty satire of class and privilege he fully intended, his Rebecca still has just the right sting of class warfare to it. The point of Hitchcock’s Rebecca was pointing out how much the rich can get away with anything just by being rich. Hitchcock delights in showing us the almost benign nature of corruption among the higher classes and it’s so subtle that you might miss it if you aren’t attuned to it.
I want to explain further but that would require spoilers for both the 1940 Rebecca and the 2020 Rebecca. So, I will carefully say that the modern Rebecca loses the satire of privilege, wealth, and corruption and instead goes for a more surface level artistry that comes up well short of what Hitchcock accomplished with artful performances and key bits of dialogue. I am downright shocked by how clumsily the modern Rebecca, in an attempt to set itself apart from the original, throws out all that makes Rebecca, Rebecca.
Instead of biting satire bathed in austere drama we get a truly moronic and overly familiar courtroom plot populated by puppet villains. Gone is the arch story of Mrs Danvers, an insidious villainess in the original movie, rendered here as pathetic. Poor Kristen Scott Thomas, she probably thought she would get to play the kind of exciting and terrifying notes that Judith Anderson played so brilliantly in 1940. Instead, the best moments from Mrs Danvers are rushed through, especially one of the great terrifying monologues of all time, and her horrific trick on the second Mrs Danvers that leads up to that brilliant monologue.
I cannot overstate how awful the choice to make the final act of Rebecca into a courtroom drama is. The cliché is bad on its own but the execution that turns one of Rebecca's best twists into a farce of sitcom shenanigans dressed up as serious drama is unforgivable. Poor Sam Riley, he takes on the pivotal role of Jack Favell, the role so exceptionally performed by George Saunders in 1940, and is stranded after Favell's best scenes are cut from the remake in favor of stock courtroom scenes.
Poor Armie Hammer suffers as well from the changes that appear to be a nod to making Rebecca more marketable among those who have limited their notion of equality to the equivalent of a sticker that says ‘girl power.’ Where Sir Laurence Olivier has a major part to play in the 1940 Rebecca, Hammer is kept off screen for large stretches and is robbed of the ending of the movie where Olivier truly shined
What was, in the 1940 movie, an exciting and fast paced final act with shifting tides of fortune and everything on the line, is now a series of clichés in which Lily James’s lead character is turned into Nancy Drew and goes through the boring motions of a sitcom reveal. A sitcom reveal that we are supposed to find shocking and surprising. Sadly, there is nothing shocking or surprising in this version of Rebecca because everything that came before the ending has been robbed of any meaning.
I will have to go on about the staggering amount of terrible ideas in the new Rebecca in a space where spoilers are permitted. For now, I will say, the original, 1940 Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchock and starring Joan Fontaine and Sir Laurence Olivier is available to stream for free on an App called TVTime, if you have a ROKU TV. Otherwise you can find it on Amazon or at your local library. Watch it and forget this remake exists.