Rewriting a Classic Du Maurier- Rebecca
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca was published in 1938 and just a mere two years later, in 1940 Alfred Hitchcock had released its first film adaptation featuring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. 80 years on, it has a new lease of life. However, this may not be the classical adaptation you are looking for.
For the uninitiated, Rebecca is, despite its title, not about a woman named Rebecca. Instead, it is about an unnamed Mademoiselle, Mrs de Winter (Lily James), meeting her soon to be husband, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) in a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo. A month later they're married and they move back to England wherein Mrs de Winter is forced to live in the shadow of her husband's ex-wife, Rebecca.
What director Ben Wheatley and DOP Laurie Rose have created is a wonderful blend of whimsical golden-era Hollywood and the slow build befitting of a 2020 thriller. Benefitting this is the way in which light and colour are used throughout the film. When things seem to be looking up for Mrs de Winter, the appearance of the world is brighter. This is particularly noticeable at the beginning of the film when the couple begins their romance, and during the planning of the Manderley Ball.
However, these are so perfectly contrasted with a sudden dull, darkness. The first instance of this is when the couple first arrive at Manderley. The rain begins to pour, none of which we've seen before in the film, and the rooms they enter are grey and shadowy. There's a looming sense of tension and fear that we have cemented by the arrival of the stern Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Speaking of Mrs. Danvers, I do believe there are few better choices than Scott Thomas for the role. It's been some time since we've been given the opportunity to see her relish in a role that is both authoritative and deliciously evil. There is not a single misspoken word from Mrs. Danvers. She's a calculating woman with a manipulative cunning which Scott Thomas encapsulates so brilliantly, especially when confronting Mrs de Winter in the bedroom after the Manderley Ball.
Lily James and Armie Hammer do appear to have taken both their roles in their stride. It feels as though these two fell into a natural rhythm so flawlessly. Experiencing their relationship blossom while in Monte Carlo is a breath of fresh air during a time when many of our relationships are having to be conducted virtually or at a distance. Seeing these two so close and enjoying one another's company is a blissful retreat.
However, I feel as though often James can often come across as a little one-note. Throughout the film she is gaslit, lead astray, and even considers suicide as a result. There feels to be little intensity increase from when she arrives at Manderley and when this suicide ideation begins. For this to have been more suspenseful, more emotional intensity would need to be built up.
Despite this, the film does maintain its momentum, never feeling laborious. Occasionally some of the foreshadowing feels a little cumbersome, for example, Mrs de Winter noting that the room doesn't have a sea view despite being close to the sea ahead of her discovering how Rebecca died. Overall there is little to be said about the pacing of the film, other than that it doesn't feel like it's 2 hour run time.
With all of this considered, there is still one element left to be discussed; how well does it hold up as an adaptation?
Wheatley told Digital Spy that, for his version of Rebecca, he would lean closer to the original source material than Hitchcock did, particularly in how Rebecca died: "It's not a remake of the Hitchcock film. So it was very important. Because that's the moral center of the movie. Without that, the film means a lot less. If she just tripped over a rope and died, it's a bit bizarre"
However, in a more active role than Mrs de Winter plays in the novel. Towards the end of the film she takes a trip to London in order to clear her husband's name by finding a vital piece of information. This gives Mrs de Winter a much more active role and creates the impression that she is less mouse-like and fragile than in the source material.
Equally so the ending takes a much more sympathetic turn, with a bittersweet culmination that, depending on your mood, Wheatley believes can be seen differently: "I think it depends on what your state of mind is when you watch it – you know, whether it's optimistic or not... I'm not sure it's that upbeat. I think they're trying to make the best of it in many ways, and it's kind of a bittersweet ending."
Overall, Rebecca is a film that, perhaps a little vacuous in some performances, delivers a sensational performance from Kristin Scott Thomas while retelling a classic story with a nod to old cinema.
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