Remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a near-perfect masterpiece of romance and mystery released over 80 years ago is bound to be an uphill task. That 1940 black and white classic, which was adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s 1939 novel of the same name, also famously known as Hitchcock’s only film to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar.
Fast-forward to the present day, Netflix and Ben Wheatley of 2015’s High-Rise and 2016’s Free Fire fame, took the gamble and manages to turn Rebecca into one of the most visually sumptuous films of the year. From Sarah Greenwood’s majestic production design shot on location in various parts of England and France to Julian Day’s lush costume design, Rebecca is undoubtedly nice and beautiful to look at. Even the Manderley estate — shot at Dorset’s Cranborne Manor and Hatfield’s Hatfield House — is all grand and exquisite both exterior and interior.
It’s just too bad that being “nice and beautiful” alone isn’t enough to overcome how limp and emotionally hollow this remake turns out to be. Like the 1940 original, the movie — adapted by Jane Goldman of Kingsman and X-Men: First Class fame, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse opens with a voiceover narration from an unnamed protagonist (Lily James, filling the shoes of the late great Joan Fontaine from the original). One day she meets and immediately falls in love with a wealthy widower named Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, taking over the role previously played by Laurence Olivier).
Long story short, they got married and return to his family manor of the Manderley estate. The manor’s housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) isn’t particularly pleased with the arrival of the new Mrs de Winter. Apparently, she wants to preserve the memory of the late Rebecca — the first Mrs de Winter who died under the mysterious circumstances.
With the exception of Kristin Scott Thomas who made quite an impression pulling off an icy portrayal of the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, the rest of the cast is a huge disappointment. No doubt that Armie Hammer and Lily James look attractive enough as a couple straight out from a fashion magazine but that’s just about it. Hammer comes across as both wooden and lifeless that the striking mustard suit even able to upstage his performance. The otherwise lovely Lily James is strangely miscast in a role that requires her to play a naive young woman. But it’s hard to sympathise with her character, thanks to the dull script that didn’t give her much room to expand.
Whereas Hitchcock has to make do with the limitation of what he can show on the big screen due to the restrictive and rigid Hays Code back in the day, Wheatley actually has the opportunity to express the novel’s queer subtext in his remake. And yet, he chose to botch that very opportunity — something where Hitchcock would have done it if not for the Hays Code. Even though Wheatley did address the subtext, he could only muster a straightforward approach that’s hardly provocative whatsoever.
The new Rebecca also severely lacks the psychological tension and the crucial sense of atmospheric dread that Hitchcock did successfully in his 1940 original. Even without the comparison, Wheatley doesn’t seem to know how to make his movie either suspenseful or intriguing whenever he should be.
Running a little over 2 hours, there are times that Rebecca felt like an eternity. The second half of the film is particularly tedious, all leading to a haphazard courtroom scene and a bland finale altogether. Despite the fact that Wheatley insisted his new take wasn’t a Hitchcock remake, it’s hard to escape the shadow of the late master of suspense no matter how you look at it.