First, some context: I haven't exactly been a big fan of director Ben Wheatley's films thus far. On the other side of this coin is the fact I've only seen two of the man's films in High-Rise and Free Fire. So, not a wealth of evidence on which to base my presumption that the filmmaker's take on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved 1938 gothic novel and the second major film adaptation after Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version wouldn't live up to its acclaimed predecessors. Some further context: I haven't seen Hitchcock's film nor have I read du Maurier’s novel, so at the very least Wheatley's iteration of this story would not be viewed under the shadow of those former works. In turn, this works well for a viewer and viewers with the same circumstances given the mystery of the piece undoubtedly works better for those previously unaware of the specifics of the narrative. That said, the two films I have seen from Wheatley both very much fit into a small, very specific kind of niche genre in that both seemed to have been heavily influenced by the style and color palette of the seventies while carrying an equally sardonic tone if not admittedly varied when it came to themes and ideas. If nothing else, Rebecca would offer an opportunity for the director to branch out stylistically and tackle a different genre altogether in this very British, very romance-infused thriller as adapted by the likes of by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass) and screenwriting duo Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg). The idea is certainly ripe given Rebecca purports to be something vastly different than that of anything Wheatley has made before, but would seem to take a turn into terrain that the director is not necessarily accustomed to, but is likely more comfortable in. It is in this hope that Wheatley's mentality and strong penchant for bringing an attitude and point of view out of his images and into the tone of his films might make Rebecca more than a by-the-numbers account of jealousy incarnate, but it is in this hope that this latest endeavor ultimately fails as it more often than not feels like this new adaptation of du Maurier’s work could have been made by anyone. Despite having not read the novel and not having seen any other versions of the work Wheatley's film moves along at a pace that fails to ever make viewers fully invest in either the characters, the drama, or the character's drama. This is an adaptation that is just enticing enough to pique interest in the source material yet couldn't feel more like a condensed version of the literature; the depths of Wheatley's film only reaching so far as Mrs. Danvers' compassion rather than that of Rebecca's grave.         

Wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) meets his new bride (Lily James) while on vacation in Monte Carlo.
Photo by Kerry Brown / Netflix/Kerry Brown / Netflix - © 2020 © Netflix, Inc.

We never find out our main character's name and we never see what our titular character looks like. Beginning with the very broadest of components there is mystery intertwined as these large omissions from what would otherwise be very basic information give the story as much a sense of apprehension as it does the veil of secrecy it's chasing. Of course, these are both elements of the original source material and so, while the story is renowned as a classic and has been re-imagined countless times the aspect under the most scrutiny this time around is what Wheatley and co. might have done with the material to make it worth re-visiting and re-telling. Coming again from the perspective of a viewer where Wheatley's film is the first encounter with du Maurier’s story though, it is difficult to not simply give one's self over to the machination of the whole affair and the protagonist that becomes wrapped up in it all despite knowing that the craft of this version lies not necessarily in the story itself, but how that story is being told. That story continually being referenced follows our unnamed protagonist (Lily James) as she accompanies a rich American woman named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) on holiday in Monte Carlo. Our narrator, the one with no name, is young and pretty and sheepishly naïve, but she is also unassuming and earnest about her inexperience and lack of financial stability all of which make her appealing and rather charming to the handsome widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a man born into wealth, but whose reputation is currently overshadowed by the recent, tragic death of his wife - the Rebecca of the title. After a rather quick courtship and the impending threat of Mrs. Van Hopper whisking her companion back to New York, Mr. de Winter asks the young woman to marry him to which she agrees and after the wedding and honeymoon, she accompanies him to his mansion in Cornwall, the beautiful estate of Manderley.  Upon arriving at Manderley, the trappings of her new life make themselves more and more evident as not only does the new Mrs. de Winter find herself battling with the ghost of her new husband’s first wife, but with Manderley’s sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who seems hellbent on keeping the former lady of houses' haunting legacy alive and present while ensuring her employer's new bride knows she will never measure up to the elegant and urbane Rebecca. 

Rebecca is a film about both a woman living for someone who is no longer living herself and another woman competing with the ghost of that woman. This is a ghost impossible to measure up to; who one character even describes as being "one of those bloody annoying people who was irresistable to everybody." The impact of this dead woman on those left in her wake sends both of the key living female characters in the film spiraling out of control in opposite directions of confusion, anxiety and misery. James' character has a line in the film that states, "It's odd isn't it, some people seem perfectly happy alone while others just need someone to past the time with...doesn't matter who." If this dialogue was lifted from du Maurier’s story I'm not sure and so I definitely don't know whether or not the novel focused on this theme in particular, but it was this idea - this presiding need of Danvers to uphold Rebecca's legacy and the choice of James' character to either become or dismantle her completely - that comes to stand as the most fascinating aspect of Wheatley's interpretation. 

Wheatley's film, as shot by frequent collaborator and cinematographer Laurie Rose, is first and foremost a gorgeously rendered and beautifully dressed film. There is no denying the intrigue of the brightly lit beaches of Monte Carlo and the period-specific clothing and cars that populate the naturally beautiful location, but it's the kind of beauty that feels like if one were to tear even the smallest aspect of it away that the entire facade would come crumbling down. It could certainly be that Wheatley's intent was to make this film, especially in the early scenes, feel as staged as possible - as if purposefully making it appear to have been shot on the backlot of a studio - in hopes of fashioning it in the vein of a classic Hollywood romance, but the darker elements of the story underscore this intent and instead force this approach to feel more false than stylized. This is a psychological thriller and it is in this predominant atmosphere presiding over the events of the film that the viewer should feel an almost cancerous presence throughout. This mood is certainly enabled by the fact the titular character's memory looms over everything once our newlyweds arrive at Manderlay, but prior to that it feels like a completely different movie in a completely different genre with little to no hint of the coming complications. That said, once it does reach Manderlay we're also already strapped with a central romance that doesn't feel fully justified or genuine. Hammer looks the part of a classic Hollywood leading man and more than has the chops to pull off the pristine facade versus inner-turmoil a character like Maxim de Winter requires. Still, it is supposed to be the naiveté and the "funny, young, lost look" she often possesses that attracts de Winter to James' character - which she plays perfectly well - yet it can't help but feel like the dynamic is partly established on some form of pity or necessary charity. It spins the aforementioned whirlwind infatuation and hasty marriage proposal in the opening twenty-five or so minutes and in that execution, which as was established earlier is the key to this fresh take on the material, there is a lack of effectiveness and impact contained within these moments. We don't ever fully buy into the fact that de Winter would view his new lady's situation in the do or die circumstances that he ultimately does. Of course, as soon as the decision is made and James' character gives into a deal that is absolutely too good to be true it immediately fulfills the prophecy of being as much as our narrator is frequently left in silence and confusion any time she confronts her new husband with questions of his past or concerns over his shortcomings.

Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) has many a motivations to hate the new Mrs. de Winter in Ben Wheatley's take on Daphne Du Maurier's novel, Rebecca.
Photo by Kerry Brown / Netflix/Kerry Brown / Netflix - © 2020 © Netflix, Inc.

It could be said these establishing issues are nothing more than a tiff and don't necessarily impact the narrative overall, but in a movie based largely in and around a property that is as significant as it is to the characters that reside within it because of the history the building contains one would imagine foundation is not just important, but vital to all facets of the storytelling. The contrary opinion might be that Rebecca is ultimately about leaving the dead behind and finding a real home; a home not defined by the portraits that hang along its excessive staircases, but the home where love transcends the physical walls. That may sound overly sentimental, but it is to this point that it's not the foundation so much that matters as it is what grows from and reinforces that ground it began upon. Whether petty or not, the quarrels with the first act of the film are largely forgiven by the time Thomas' Mrs. Danvers shows up on screen. Thomas, a Dame (DBE) and Oscar, BAFTA, and Olivier Award nominee, inherits what is seemingly the juiciest role from the novel and creates a rather terrifying performance. Now, while this is a performance that can be seen just as easily through one prism upon an initial watch as it can another the second time all one really needs to do to understand the craft Thomas is putting on display is read her facial expressions. From the moment she welcomes the new Mrs. de Winter to Manderlay through to her final act there is a devastating sorrow to her tone lined with an ever-present hint of judgement that can be discerned through the arch in her eyebrow. It's at once completely devious while also being the type of anger and hostility that comes from heartbreak and depression and Thomas completely masters that balancing act. At the same time, as I assume is the case with du Maurier’s novel, Danvers never allows the presence of Rebecca to stray far from her heart as it's this unseen force that her character not only wallows in, but that drives her every action. Speaking of emotionally confused characters, one would be remiss to not also mention Sam Riley (Maleficent) who is growing into a terrific character actor as he shows up in less than a handful of scenes here to both give off some serious David Tomlinson vibes as well as embody something of a tease of a man grasping at any scrap of anything that might benefit him while never foregoing his own lifestyle. Furthermore, the entirety of the cast is very clearly apt at interpreting and conveying the material in potent ways as are each of Wheatley's departments, especially when it comes to reinforcing the presence of a title character we never see, but it simply never comes together in a fashion that feels as mythic as that of the one created around Rebecca.

No comments:

Post a Comment