The beautiful and bland: Gothic drama plateaus in ‘Rebecca’ reboot

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

As the familiar walls of our homes feel increasingly enclosed and anxieties of “The Yellow Wallpaper” spill from fiction into reality, Netflix offers an alternative escape into the lavish, haunting world of “Rebecca.” The 2020 film comes as a successor to an earlier Alfred Hitchcock adaptation as well as a 1997 British miniseries, all of which spawn from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 bestselling Gothic novel, “Rebecca.” 

It’s daunting to approach any material cloaked in Hitchcock’s long shadow; his 1940 “Rebecca” won two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned nine other nominations. Recent years of moviemaking, however, brim with reboots. In this gambit, Netflix seems to wager the film’s success on modern unfamiliarity with the 80-year-old classic. This newest reproduction of “Rebecca,” directed by Ben Wheatley, is a gilded tchotchke: beautiful aesthetics elevating mediocre substance.

Lily James stars in “Rebecca” as an unnamed young woman who serves as a “ladies’ companion,” accompanying wealthy women on their travels. During a job in Monte Carlo, James’ character catches the attention of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a wealthy widower. Fortunately, her snobbish employer (Ann Dowd) becomes ill and bedridden, so the young woman sneaks away with Maxim on gorgeous, enthralling adventures for the movie’s first 20 minutes. 

Class divisions scandalize their flirtation as Maxim clearly occupies higher status than the young woman. While it’s a joy to watch Hammer do literally anything in a tailored three-piece suit, the film stands on flimsy scaffolding when it tries to present James, the very actress who played Cinderella, as a frumpy-dumpy plain Jane.

Marriage sprouts from their characters’ whirlwind romance, and the couple moves into Maxim’s colossal estate, Manderley. Cinematographer Laurie Rose captures the Manderley in its magnitude and enlivens each vignette — the canopied woods, the thrashing seaside and, of course, the ivied mansion — with its own splendor. At Manderley, the young bride confronts a wholly darker reality as her home seems to immortalize Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. 

The second Mrs. de Winter endures constant, belittling comparison to her pristine predecessor, especially from the head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Thomas settles into a sleek austerity that’s delightful to watch. Her surrounding cast members are fine, but their performances veer toward perfunctory — it feels like rubbing salt in an open wound by mentioning that Sir Laurence Olivier played Hitchcock’s Maxim. Presumably, Hammer’s casting would be a safe bet since the actor usually embraces roles akin to the hot, haughty debonaire type; as Maxim, however, Hammer mistakes aloofness for listlessness, and his character struggles to elicit interest until the film’s jolting final moments.

Hammer’s performance is not alone, unfortunately. Most of the movie’s characters are not wildly interesting, except for Mrs. Danvers and the elusive first wife inspiring the title. Even in death, Rebecca carries influence over the de Winter mansion. Every object bears her monogram; every room is perfumed with her memory. The second Mrs. de Winter doesn’t stand a chance: Her psychological suffocation, aggravated by Maxim’s secrecy about his first marriage, becomes the film’s primary conflict. This tension tugs at a recurring theme of class disparities.

“Rebecca” seems swallowed by its own size. The movie marks Wheatley’s biggest budget to date, a milestone reflected in the camera’s imbalanced attention. Wheatley marvels at Manderley’s opulent interiors, but fumbles to excavate psychological substance. Viewers will spend much of the film merely watching James’ heroine get scared while their own heart rate pulses normally.

Every adaptation carries the burden of justification. The best works of the bunch cross a certain threshold of freshness and offer an innovative or timely answer to the question: Why glaze an existing story in a new coat of paint? An aesthetic metaphor actually seems rather apt to appraise “Rebecca,” since the 2020 film rests on its exquisite laurels without offering much else. Wheatley’s “Rebecca” more closely resembles its source material, but fidelity to the novel’s original plot is of little importance when the allure and passion quintessential to gothic fiction become lost in translation.

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].