Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, only it wasn’t a dream rather a bland nightmare. I returned to this fictional estate not through my well-loved copy of Daphne du Maurier’s novel but through the screen with the new adaptation of Rebecca.
It is a bold move to take on such a beloved book, let alone one that has been tackled by the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Winning him his only Oscar, might I add. Director Ben Wheatley was insistent that he was adapting du Maurier’s novel rather than remaking Hitchcock’s film. As a fan of the novel and someone who wrote her dissertation on du Maurier, I am more than happy to hold him to this statement.
I am no stranger to the disappointments of book adaptations. It’s well known that they often cannot match their novel counterpart. However, I was not prepared for the way this film adapted the plot with wild abandon in the first 5 minutes. After this initial deviation, the film settles back into the narrative of the novel. On the whole, the major plot points and twists are intact so some minor tweaks here and there can be forgiven. The main noticeable change is to the ending. The fate of the housekeeper and ending in seeming wedded bliss are examples of this. Sadly, these are neither awful nor intriguing enough to warrant much discussion.
Starting as a lady’s companion to the social-climbing and distasteful Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), our unnamed protagonist (Lily James) catches the eye of the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Afterwards, they start a whirlwind affair in stunning Monte Carlo. He quickly proposes and whisks her back to his estate – much to the disgust and jealousy of Van Hopper. This is all done with a pretty backdrop and is reasonably well acted; James cannot quite capture the naivety and shyness of the novel’s protagonist but does a decent job to appear plain and unassuming.
As the tale shifts from sunny Monte Carlo to the foreboding Manderley, set on the Cornish coast, the novel kicks its gothic elements into overdrive. Wheatley, somewhat surprisingly, struggles to do the same.
For a deceased woman, Rebecca’s presence in the novel is undeniable. She haunts the pages and our protagonist The Second Mrs De Winter’s mind is consumed by thoughts of her. At points, it is unclear whether her ghost really is still floating around Manderley and whether Maxim is truly over this seemingly flawless woman. As du Maurier herself once said, Rebecca is “a study in jealousy”. James’ character struggles to fill the shoes of a woman who doesn’t quite seem to have vacated them.
This ghostly aspect seems to have been forgotten by the scriptwriters as Rebecca’s presence seems to only intrude when housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas) or others mentions her or when our protagonist goes looking for her. Scott Thomas is probably the most compelling part of this remake as the unnerving housekeeper dead set on destroying the new Mrs de Winter. She clings to thoughts of Rebecca, whom she raised. Her cold, manipulative and spot-on performance coupled with the beautiful scenery is almost enough to make me warm to the film… almost.
The overwhelming and haunting nature of Rebecca that permeates the novel is completely lacking in Wheatley’s film. Her absolute control over the living is downplayed in favour of the romantic plot between James and Hammer’s characters.
The compelling thing about Rebecca is that the presence of its titular character is what makes the story. Like her or loathe her, she is intoxicating. You want to know more about this mysterious woman who lived as she wanted, flaunting her affairs. Du Maurier imbues the novel with mystery, jealousy and an undeniable flair for the gothic. Remove that and all you’re left with is a bland romance with a brief murder mystery in the middle.
The choice to cut down the build-up of Rebecca means that everything else feels dulled down, even big reveals are swept aside so quickly it barely feels like a plot point. The punchiness of twists that du Maurier crafts so beautifully are completely undermined by the fact for most of the film we only mildly remember Maxim had a first wife anyway.
If you’ve never read Rebecca, then this is an okay romantic tale with about as much tension as Love Actually. That being said, Love Actually may actually have more due to Alan Rickman’s devastating affair. If you’ve read Rebecca avoid this film like the romance-washed bore it is. Wheatley’s Rebecca is pretty to look at but there’s not much substance beyond that. Sadly and somewhat ironically, it cannot live up to its predecessors.
Words by Danni Scott
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