Based on Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel of the same name, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca deviates from his usual cinematic focus on dark psychological horrors, in favour of a glossy, romantic thriller. The film follows an unnamed protagonist (Lily James), who after a rose-tinted whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, marries the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). After moving into his beautiful Cornish estate, she becomes haunted by the memory of his deceased first wife, while dealing with the hostility of Mrs Danvers, the ominous housekeeper (Kristin Scott Thomas) who loathes her being there.
This isn’t the first time that Rebecca has been adapted for the screen. Hitchcock famously adapted the novel in 1940. Wheatley’s attempt remains an enjoyable watch, albeit one that feels less nuanced and original when compared to its earlier counterpart.
The new adaptation has the considerable benefit of being shot in the 21st century. Its colourful and aesthetically pleasing cinematography, particularly during the early scenes set in the south of France, is easily one of its more memorable elements. The film is dreamy, elegant and picturesque – certainly reflective of the high society lifestyle experienced by its characters. However, this greater emphasis on the romantic and visual side of Rebecca has resulted in it falling short on the emotional complexity and dark ambiguity which made its predecessor an instant classic.
Hammer’s Maxim de Winter lacks the intense temperament and authority that his enigmatic persona demands. This results in a watered down version of the character that is overshadowed by the performances of the other actors in the film.
On the other hand, Kristen Scott Thomas’ icy Mrs Danvers is a far more memorable performance; the actor retains the cold and malign nature of the character, while adapting her slightly so as to create a notable distinction from the 1940 portrayal by Judith Anderson, which made the character infamous. While Anderson’s version is unwaveringly bitter and apathetic, Scott Thomas’ feigned amiability during the build up to the film’s climax provides a new spin on the iconic role.
While the film is an entertaining watch, it is the story of Rebecca itself which draws you in, as opposed to the quality of the adaptation itself. Wheatley’s attempt at reimagining the film is respectable and captivating, however it is difficult to watch without inevitably comparing it to the more emotive original.
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