October 14th, 2020




It’s one thing to remake a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s another thing to remake his movie that won best picture. Rebecca is undoubtedly a Hitchcock classic. A film in his career that plays like a launching pad for his bigger works to come (Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, etc.) and Ben Wheatley is taking his risk of remaking this classic for himself. There’s much to discuss about a movie like this. The subject of remakes alone could be a long essay, but the ultimate question a film critic must ask themselves is was that remake necessary? Typically, the answer is no, and the answer is almost always no when the movie being remade was great the first time. The reason why this Rebecca remake works is because Wheatley is expanding the narrative, taking a film from 1940, and enhancing the story with the lavish scenery with the technology that cinema offers today. It helps to have an all-star cast, with Lily James in the role of the demure Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as the wealthy and handsome Maxim de Winter, and Kristen Scott Thomas giving a shot at the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. It’s not reaching the level of excellence that Hitchcock made, but this version of Rebecca is a bright new interpretation for a new audience to discover today.

Not much changes in this narrative from the latter. Mrs. de Winter starts as a paid companion to the social feasting Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), helping at her beck and call in a sun lit Monte Carlo, playing a stand-in as a faux-friend. As timing would have it, they bump into Maxim de Winter, a well-known socialite, with the town gossip on how the tragic death of his wife Rebecca de Winter has left him disillusioned. But the paid companion becomes his romantic companion, the two sharing long talks, walks, and falling in love. Just when she thinks Mrs. Van Hopper will bring her back to New York, Maxim makes her his wife, whisking her away to Mandeley, his gothic mansion along the mountainside, and the house under the leering eye of Mrs. Danvers. Now Mrs. de Winter is submerged into a world she knows nothing about, learning new secrets about Maxim, and the ghost of Rebecca casting a shadow over everyone that steps foot into Mandeley.

When dissecting the differences between the 1940 Hitchcock version and this, one instantly notices that the sets and costumes bring a level of allure that no black & white film can relate to. There is a sense of a three dimensional addition, with Armie Hammer wearing golden mustard suits, James in delicate flower pattern fabrics, and Kristen Scott Thomas wearing black as if she’s modeling for funerals. The sets for Manderley are mysterious and large scale, with rooms that look big enough to house an elephant. The true dissecting is in the performances and the narrative, the screenplay by the trio of Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, makes subtle changes, some choices that make the original much better, but give this version its own unique touch. Is it better for it? Not entirely, but in areas where the story lacks, Lily James brings a touch of beauty, innocence, and grace that makes this character more alive than before- sorry Joan Fontaine.

For Ben Wheatley this is a bigger scale than his previous works. The director of Kill List has a flare for dealing with past periods, the 50’s here, the futuristic 60’s with High-Rise, and the 70’s with Free Fire, allowing the English director to add texture to the screen. What this Rebeccas is lacking is in the direct nature of these characters. Laurence Olivier brought a gravitas that Hammer can’t match, which made the Maxim character more mysterious. While the casting of Kristen Scott Thomas is admirable, it’s nothing compared to the chilling work of Judith Anderson, whose cold, malicious Mrs. Danvers has you wondering if she even has a heart. It is these comparisons that elevate the question about remakes. It’s impossible to repeat what has been done before, you don’t want to do what Gus Van Sant did with Psycho, but you also want to show today’s audience something they would never seek out. For today’s audience, this Rebecca fits the bill.

The end result is that the story of Rebecca is incredibly intriguing, in both iterations. It’s a unique look at status, the way our past haunts us, fitting in a place of opulence, and a Gatsby-like search for perfection. I do, however, implore you to seek out the Hitchcock version first. The problem is how difficult it is to get a hold of the best picture winner. You can buy it on Criterion and that’s it. I watched it on YouTube in a version that was less than adequate. This version from Ben Wheatley is worthy of its existence, with a gorgeous production value and a breakthrough performance from Lily James. The ghost of Alfred Hitchcock may be looking over this movie’s shoulder, but there’s plenty of reason to give this Rebecca a chance. Whichever one you watch, you will always have a reason to visit Manderley.


Written by: Leo Brady

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