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Netflix’s ‘Rebecca’ Raises the Question: Why Go Back Again?

Ben Wheatley’s remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic simultaneously overcompensates and under-delivers

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Why go back to Manderley again? It’s a question raised—and not satisfactorily answered—in Netflix’s new film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca, which not only fails to clear the high bar set by Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 adaptation (merely one of the most beloved and iconic romantic dramas ever made), but also fails to live up to the imagination and track record of its director, Ben Wheatley.

Wheatley emerged a decade ago as arguably the most idiosyncratic and daring English genre filmmaker of the 21st century—a critically acclaimed festival-circuit regular churning out sharp variations on midnight-movie forms—and he has reached the point that studios might fancy him a reliable director for hire. (After working with Netflix, he’s set to make the next Tomb Raider film with Alicia Vikander.) This new status augurs well for a former indie figurehead’s industrial fortunes. But it also cuts him off from the source of his nervy, hard-driving, and sometimes extraordinary talent. Wheatley’s main gift is for bleak black comedy, including 2011’s Kill List, one of the great movies of the new millennium. In it, the director was able to conjure up the ghosts of past U.K. horror classics without seeming derivative, toggling swiftly between kitchen-sink realism, buddy-comedy camaraderie, and authentically nightmarish, folk-tinged imagery. Love it or hate it, Kill List was made with a palpable sense of purpose. Even if you stumbled out of the theater thinking that Wheatley had gone too far (the coda is on the short list of the most upsetting endings of all time), the point is that he went for it.

A few years later, when Wheatley was tapped to adapt J.G. Ballard’s future-shock allegory High-Rise, the final results were even more polarizing. But whatever the flaws of that hyperkinetic epic, you could feel the filmmaker’s presence in every cut, testing his potentially impenetrable material for entry points and generating the kind of wild, whirring, frenetic chaos that has garnered a cult following.

Rebecca 2.0 won’t have a cult following. It probably won’t please purists, either. For most of its two-hour run time, the film feels stranded somewhere between re-creation and reinvention—the artistic equivalent of no man’s land. It’s not an unpleasant watch, but what’s frustrating is that a witty, satirically-minded filmmaker like Wheatley could have recognized the comic potential inherent in trying to reboot a cautionary fable about the anxiety of influence. The very idea of redoing Rebecca is like a joke on the material’s essence: The whole thing is about the impossibility of trying to substitute one person for another.

Written in 1938, du Maurier’s novel concerns a nameless young woman of middling parentage and prospects who is romanced—unexpectedly and passionately, if also a bit mechanically—by the wealthy, debonair widower Maxim de Winter, an exceptionally eligible bachelor. No sooner have the two gotten hitched than she suspects he’s still carrying a torch for his dearly departed first wife. The novel’s title is appropriate, because even though its namesake never makes an appearance, Rebecca occupies a country-manor-sized plot of real estate in the protagonist’s head—and also, by extension, the reader’s.

“It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, living with the devil?” a character asks at one point. It’s this impression of some hovering, ephemeral burden—of feeling so haunted as to become a ghost—that gives the story its power and its enduring appeal. Even if there’s something specifically vicarious and voyeuristic about watching rich people squirm in the grip of complicated feelings like insecurity and jealousy, it’s also a pretty universal impulse to measure yourself against your partner’s former partners; the same self-punishing urge that leads people to trawl ex’s Facebook pages and Instagram feeds is at the core of du Maurier’s story.

In his Rebecca homage, Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson mined a rich vein of romantic paranoia through the character of Alma (Vicky Krieps), whose uneasy sojourn in the House of Woodcock directly mirrors the Second Mrs. de Winter’s stay at Manderley (Anderson has spoken on the record about the influence of Hitchcock’s film on his screenplay). The link between Rebecca and Phantom Thread was cinched by Lesley Manville’s role in the latter as a black-clad authority figure torturing the heroine by implying she isn’t good enough for her new husbanda clear reference to Rebecca’s sinister Mrs. Danvers, whose abiding love and devotion for Rebecca has a passionately necrophilic aspect captured perfectly by Judith Anderson in the 1940 film. A stoic, sepulchral presence casting one of the most distinctly sinister silhouettes in cinema history, Mrs. Danvers is an avatar of grief hardening into misanthropy, a keen-eyed watchdog frothing silently against would-be intruders.

In addition to Manville’s superlatively sardonic performance, Phantom Thread played off of Hitchcock’s casting tactics by setting the untested Krieps against Daniel Day-Lewis, a pairing reminiscent of Rebecca’s original duo: the untested, unconventional Joan Fontaine and reigning British stage star Laurence Olivier. For both Hitchcock and PTA, the seemingly imbalanced power dynamic between the actors created a shorthand for what was going on in the narrative, allowing them to draw audiences in to their protagonists’ plights while also accessing their shared and uncanny sense of defiance.

Lily James doesn’t have Joan Fontaine’s deceptive, furtive plainness or Vicky Krieps’s startling malleability; she’s a fine, composed, serenely beautiful actress who is less convincing dressed-down in the early scenes—when her character is working as an assistant to a grotesque society woman (Ann Dowd)—than slipping into the high-end fashions subsidized by her new beau. Wheatley has played interestingly with female perspective before in Sightseers, in which Alice Lowe’s lonely 30-something is drawn into a whirlwind affair with a writer who turns out to be a serial killer. The director worked from a script by his wife, Amy Jump, and he captured something about the excitement and terror of falling in love when both parties are carrying their share of personal baggage. The premise of his-and-hers sociopaths is right in his wheelhouse—less so is James’s mannered, porcelain fidgetiness or Armie Hammer in mustard-colored finery whispering beneath his best approximation of a stiff upper lip, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” That’s one of a few famous lines here that lands, like so many other bits of dialogue in a screenplay credited to three writers (including Kingsmen scribe Jane Goldman), with something less than even a thud.

Rebecca’s early scenes on the French Riviera are elliptically edited—a Wheatley trademark indebted to Nicolas Roeg, whose own du Maurier adaptation, 1973’s Don’t Look Now, is one of the most absorbing, mesmerizing ghost stories ever filmed. There, Roeg used disorienting cutting to offset the touristic splendor of Venice. But when Wheatley fragments things in Rebecca, it’s more distracting than beguiling—a strategy in search of a purpose.

The film’s style grows a bit more assured when the newlyweds decamp to the manicured grounds of Manderley, a location whose spacious claustrophobia is beautifully realized by production designer Sarah Greenwood. The array of spiral staircases, shadowy corridors, and funereal decor transcends period detail to register as a genuine vision. The backdrop also brings out the best in the actors, with James doing a credible impression of Fontaine’s spooked uncertainty as her leisure-class existence becomes subject to psychological discomfort. The phony romanticism of Hammer’s acting in the prologue gives way to a pressurized agitation suggesting that Max is suffering his own private, parallel anxieties about his too-hasty marriage. Such anguish was in Olivier’s sweet spot, and if his Maxim ranks among the great, broody sad boys in movie history, it’s because of the actor’s ability to access insecurity and melancholy, emotions seemingly beyond Hammer’s alpha-male purview. (In his brief appearance as Max’s friend Jack, Sam Riley has enough tragic charm to make one wish he’d play the lead.) As Mrs. Danvers, Kristin Scott Thomas is the only major player to truly escape the shadow of her predecessor to create something new. The actress’s interpretation retains some of the clandestine lesbian shadings of Anderson’s turn while accessing a more playful, performative sense of cruelty. Taken on their own terms, Thomas’s scenes with James are the duets of skillful actors, with Mrs. Danvers playing the younger woman like a quivering, stringed instrument.

Ideally, the threat posed by Mrs. Danvers to the heroine’s safety and sanity should feel of a piece with some larger sense of menace, yet it’s on this point Rebecca somehow simultaneously overcompensates and under-delivers. Perhaps trying to justify his billing as a millennial master of horror, Wheatley attempts a few shivery, hallucinatory horror-movie images: submerged figures, creeping CGI vines, and a deep-red nightmare. These are almost all too literal, as if substituting for a more pervasive lack of atmosphere. Cinematographer Laurie Rose is typically a wizard with creepy, insinuating compositions, and he orchestrates a few nifty visual effects involving mirrors, a genre-movie hallmark given heft by the script’s plays on reflection and doubling. But the movie’s handsomeness is mostly just bland, and an example of how the gleaming Netflix house aesthetic—which is eternally calibrated with streaming in mind—doesn’t always jibe with a project’s best interests.

The biggest twist that Wheatley and his writers attempt comes toward the end, when the movie takes a politically correct tact by turning James’s character into a more active figure in her own narrative, shifting the emphasis from victimization to empowerment. The slightly illicit thrill of seeing a classic being revamped before our eyes is real, but the gesture is offset by the ultimate timidity of the movie as a whole. Rebecca is a drama about the all-consuming nature of obsession, and a woman whose spooky charisma and sheer force of personality were enough to control the people around her in life and in death. Her grip is unbreakable, but the movie that’s been (re)made in her honor is weirdly disposable. There’s nothing to hold on to here. It’s less that Wheatley’s reach exceeds his grasp than that he doesn’t really seem to be reaching in the first place.