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Non-Review Review: Rebecca

The most shocking thing about Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca is how tame it feels.

The bulk of the coverage of the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance focuses on the idea that Wheatley is tilting at cinematic windmills by daring to explore the same ground that Alfred Hitchcock had already so memorably mapped. Hitchcock is as close to a cinematic sacred cow as exists, and to attempt to remake one of his most beloved films would be tantamount to making another version of Gone with the Wind or restaging Casablanca. It is one of the rare lines that exists in a modern pop culture built around recycling existing intellectual property.

Maxim-um fun.

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with daring to approach the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. After all, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker was very much an update of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. More than that, there are perhaps valid reasons for wanting to go to Manderley again. Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s novel was constrained by the demands of the Production Code Authority, and forced to change key plot points and obscure others through subtext. While some observers might argue this renders the film more “artful”, it does justify a revisit in a less puritanical time.

However, Wheatley never manages to bring these ideas to the surface. His version of Rebecca never manages to quite articulate or express the anxieties lurking in the shadow of Hitchcock’s classic. Rebecca is a sleek and stylish production with a set of solid performances and a few flashes of visual vigour, but it lacks a strong sense of its own identity – often seeming disjointedly caught between its influences and its impulses, failing to reconcile the two into anything especially compelling.

A time for reflection.

Wheatley invites the comparisons to Hitchcock, albeit in a slightly more interesting way than the film’s title might suggest. Wheatley’s version of Rebecca is obviously shot in colour and in widescreen, so it often seems to quote from other Hitchcock films. Most obviously, the early courtship of the second Miss de Winter by Maxim is shot by Laurie Rose to evoke the sun-drenched riviera escapades of To Catch a Thief, where the joy seems to be watching beautiful movie stars in beautiful surroundings driving beautiful cars and enjoying the sun and each other.

Later on, as Wheatley guides the audience deeper into Manderley, the film seems to take its visual cues from Vertigo. In particular, the manner in which the eponymous dead wife’s room has been preserved looks completely at odds with the otherwise grounded aesthetic of the film around it. It is a conscious and clever choice – reflecting the sense in which Rebecca is an ethereal and haunting figure to the protagonist – but it also evokes the texture of those old studio-bound Hollywood films. Perhaps Wheatley is as haunted by Hitchcock as Manderley is by Rebecca.

Maxim really should have been more open with her about his process.

To be fair, this is a clever idea on paper. Wheatley understands the power of expectations and the manner in which the audience will likely approach Rebecca under the shadow of Hitchcock. At the same time, Rebecca only really comes alive when Wheatley’s own stylistic sensibility is allowed to bubble to the surface – in the protagonist’s weird and haunting dream sequences that suggest the landscape is but a reflection of her tortured psyche. The opening visit to Manderley is vivid and striking, as is a later moment where the house threatens to swallow her whole.

Indeed, at least some of the issues with Rebecca are inherited from the source material. The movie’s structure works well enough as a novel, but doesn’t readily translate to a compelling feature film. Rebecca has a very clear three-act structure, opening as a holiday romance before transforming into a gothic nightmare before becoming a legal procedural. However, the film doesn’t navigate these genre shifts as efficiently as it needs to, instead feeling like it starts over three separate times rather than advancing a single cohesive narrative.

de Winter is coming.

This problem is particularly obvious in the movie’s second act, in which the protagonist movies into Manderley as the second Miss de Winter and finds herself both haunted by the ghost of her predecessor and at odds with the machinations of the housekeeper Misses Danvers. There’s a lot of potential tension to be mined here, but in effect the second act becomes a series of repetitive episodic humiliations for the film’s central character, in which she repeats the same mistakes over and over and refuses to learn from them or take steps to stop them happening again.

Still, there is a lot to like in Rebecca. The production is lavish. Cinematographer Laurie Rose makes the film look beautiful. The cast are engaging, if not exceptional. Lily James brings a necessary vulnerability to the lead role, while Armie Hammer is very convincing as a deeply repressed and emotionally unavailable husband, while Sam Riley is suitably slimy. However, the movie belongs to Kristen Scott Thomas in the role of Danvers, even if her powerhouse performance gets at one of the film’s most fundamental issues.

Near kiss.

Hitchcock made his version of Rebecca at a time when American cinema was extremely repressed. Perhaps this enriched the film, forcing Hitchcock to sublimate within the film the anxieties that the lead character was repressing within herself. However, the censors dictated a number of significant changes to the adaptation, many of which could be argued to have diluted or simplified the nuance and complexity of the source novel. To dwell on these changes in any depth with arguably spoil both versions of the film and the novel, but some of these details were crucial.

Wheatley’s adaptation carried over that theme of repression. The film dwells on the relative inexperience and insecurity of its protagonist. “Everything I know is from books,” she explains early in the film. “I haven’t really experienced anything yet. I plan to before I get old.” So much of the film is rooted in sublimated sexual anxiety. When her employer finds out that the young woman has been spending time with the eligible bachelor Maxim de Winter, she rather pointedly asks, “Have you been doing things you shouldn’t?” (Even Rebecca’s room is designed in virginal white.)

Getting away Scott free?

Of course, this sublimation is the point. When Maxim boasts about taking his young bride home to Manderley, her employer gasps, “‘Home to Manderlay!’ Goodness, it’s out of a fairytale!” Of course it is. The logic of Rebecca is like something out of a fairy tale, with sexual desire and uncertainty buried beneath the gothic trappings – Manderley is a castle, Maxim is a prince, Rebecca is a stubborn ghost. Wheatley seems to jokes about it. “We’ll have whatever Miss de Winter would have had,” the new woman of the house states, in what feels like a When Harry Met Sally reference.

There are moments when the subtext of Rebecca threatens to burst out into the open. At various points, Rebecca hints at the complicated relationship between the servant Danvers’ and her former master, and the context in which that dynamic existed. As conspiracy theories swirl around the previous Lady of Manderley, Danvers protests, “She lived her life as she pleased, my Rebecca. No wonder a man had to kill her.” Later on, she bitterly laments of the man accused of the crime, “He killed the only person I loved.”

“Of course, it can be both a completely gratuitous homage to The Lady from Shanghai and a heavy-handed metaphor at the same time, right?”

However, Wheatley’s adaptation never manages to bring these ideas to the fore. It never dares to clearly articulate them, only approaching them obliquely and abstractly. In fact, while Wheatley’s adaptation does move key events closer to the text of the novel, it makes a number of false compromises with Hitchcock’s earlier work. The result is a film that feels too reverential to ever really emerge as its own thing. It’s well made and stylish, and a solid watch, but it exists in the shadow of too much that came before.

Then again, perhaps this makes it a fitting (if frustrating) adaptation of Rebecca.

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