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Review: Rebecca (2020)

Rebecca (2020)

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Set in the 1930s, a woman of low social standing (Lily James) marries an aristocratic widower (Armie Hammer). When they return to his estate, she investigates the mysterious death of her husband’s first wife. 

What Works: Rebecca was previously adapted into a 1940 feature film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The filmmakers of the 2020 version take advantage of contemporary filmmaking techniques and give this picture a distinct look that justifies the remake. The cast of Rebecca is quite strong. Much of the film’s mystery is built around the performance of Armie Hammer as the aloof husband. While he is introduced as an affable guy, Hammer’s character also has flashes of violence and anger and Hammer plays this in a way that suggests suspicion in the death of his first wife. Lily James plays the lead, a woman of a low social caste who finds herself the lady of an estate. The fish-out-of-water moments are done well. James possesses an earnestness that is foiled by the machinations of Mrs. Danvers, the lead housekeeper, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. The bullying of the new wife is quite visceral and Scott Thomas is an effective villain.

What Doesn’t: Some of the problems with Rebecca are rooted in the source material. The story is ridiculous and the translation of that material into a visual medium takes away much of the psychological depth that is unique to literature. James’ character is bullied by Mrs. Danvers but there’s no reason for her to put up with it; the new wife is in a position to fire Mrs. Danvers at any time. It becomes quite incredulous that she doesn’t do that or at least appeal to her husband to do so. There is a late reveal in the story that is morally complicated. It reframes what we understood about the mystery and it ought to change the way James’ character sees her husband. The wife’s lack of reaction is puzzling and makes her a colder and less empathetic character. Another critical flaw of Rebecca is the failure to create the impression that the memory of the first wife hangs over the manner; her legacy isn’t felt in the movie and that diminishes the central themes and conflicts of the story. The 2020 version of Rebecca uses some interesting stylistic elements but the more extreme moments, such as the wife’s breakdown at the ball, are done in a way that is inconsistent with the style of the rest of the picture. The pacing is sometimes choppy with the story lurching forward or passing through important moments too quickly.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.  

Bottom Line: The 2020 version of Rebecca has a good cast but the film never overcomes the problems with the source material and it frequently exacerbates them. An adaptation of this story probably needs to reimagine the material more aggressively to make it work.

Episode: #829 (December 6, 2020)