Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley and Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Ben Wheatley
Date of Release: 16th (selected cinemas) and 21st October, 2020 (on Netflix)
Plot: A newly wed woman finds herself haunted by the shadow of her husband's deceased first wife when they arrive at his home, Manderley.
Contrary to several misconceptions, this is NOT a remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, but a new screen adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's gothic novel, which in turn was most likely inspired by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
Rebecca is an absorbing and unique novel- beginning with the famous line: 'Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again' - mostly because Rebecca de Winter, who though dead prior to the beginning of the story, maintains a strong central presence, while the narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, is never addressed by her first name all through the novel. But, for the purpose of this review only, I will address her as 'Nomie', as 'Nameless' is Innominatam in Latin.
In this 2020 adaptation, Nomie is played by Lily James (Cinderella) and the handsome Armin Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) played Maxim de Winter. Viewers who have read the book more than once know how it goes; they meet in Monte Carlo where she's a companion to a vulgar social climber and while though Maxim displayed some strange mood swings, she falls in love with him. After their wedding and blissful honeymoon, Maxim takes her to his vast estate, Manderley, where the real drama begins. Not only is Nomie haunted by the shadowy presence of her late predecessor- who is constantly mentioned- but is a victim of mind games by Rebecca's number one fan, the cold Manderley's housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, this time played by Kristin Scott Thompson (The English Patient).
Some adaptations... what am I saying, most adaptations either follow the source material closely with some added scenes, or would omit several parts, which is why each adaptation is different.
Where to start with this current adaptation?
The first few scenes did a bit of showing and telling of Nomie's character; Mrs Van Hopper, in a cruel manner, describing Nomie to her friends- which served as a sort of voice over for non readers of the book. Nomie is shy, is at the woman's beck and call and is fond of sketching. And unlike previous adaptations, the snobbery over difference in class was more open, in the form of the snotty maitre'd, who didn't want to serve Nomie (saying the main dinning area was for 'guests only'), and is still scornful when Maxim invites her to dine with him.
Maxim is supposed to look every inch the Byronic hero, who the hell decided to dress him in a yellow suit? Plus, he's supposed to be played by a man in his 40's, not early 30's, he and Nomie had the glaring appearance of a young couple. And he revealed a key part about his past too soon, which was supposed to serve as part of the character's mystique. His marriage proposal is heartfelt rather than abrupt, which further deviates from the novel and he comes off as more of a temperamental and rather secretive gentleman than enigmatic and broody. This Maxim is more affectionate towards his new wife but at the same time shuts her out and lets her find her own feet in her new home.
Nomie (Lily James) displayed her attraction to Maxim a tad soon, losing her initial shyness and became playful around him, even dragging him along by the hand to go swimming with her, ending up (gasp) them getting very busy on the blanket. Can anyone imagine Nomie in the novel giving herself to a man she barely knew, before marriage? Or Maxim taking advantage of an innocent girl before proposing? Which sort of made Mrs Van Hopper's rude question, 'Have you been doing something you shouldn't?' more than enough reason to make Nomie really blush. And there was the sight of Maxim carrying Nomie over the threshold... slung over his shoulder for all the servants to see. The house itself didn't have an actual gothic feel, it looked more like the main setting of Downtown Abbey.
|Mrs Danvers' first appearance
Another thing that ruins the slow build of the story is the first appearance of Mrs Danvers, the camera quickly cutting to her watching Maxim play around with Nomie outside, instead of a hand reaching out to shake Nomie's before actually revealing her face. Kristin Thompson Scott played this memorable character very well, a mixture of coldness and thinly veiled diabolical intent. The scene where Nomie confronted her about Jack Ravell was cringey- it's not done to dress down the housekeeper in front of the staff- but Mrs Danvers' calm response was a classic example of gas-lighting.
|Maxim sleepwalking, which was not in the novel.
We can assume the reason behind this was the big secret heavy on his mind but it was not discussed further after Nomie pointed it out to him, hence seemed pointless. Yet, we know what Maxim is going through, even with the presence of his beautiful new wife, the first one still lurking in the background.
|Jack Favell's visit & the plight of women in that period presented
Jack Favell and Mrs Danvers caused a huge fight between Maxim and Nomie, causing her to furiously demand that the housekeeper gave her notice. The cunning older woman managed to calm her down and talked about how women either married or go into service to survive. Which was the real life plight of women in that era, unless they were born into wealth. And it's a wonder Nomie was able to fall for her soothing bullshit when her intent was to fire her.
|The epic costume fail
The biggest faux pas Nomie committed was choosing the dress in the painting of Maxim's ancestor for her ball costume, not knowing until too late Rebecca had done the same thing during the previous ball. This dress was far more daring than the ones in previous adaptations, hence making this epic costume fail far more dramatic, plus the fact that the guests actually saw her wearing it!
|How the Big Reveal was handled
|Mrs de Winter's role in clearing Maxim's name
It deviated from the novel, but seeing Nomie race about to save her husband showed a big evolution in character, instead of standing by and watching the events unfold. She is an accessory after the fact but determined to stand by Maxim and not let the late Rebecca win. She firmly advises Maxim what and what not to say or act in court and joins him in confronting Favell when he shows up at the house. However the blackmail turned out to be trap, leading to Mrs Danvers' testimony in court. The final reveal was not presented and closed in a straight forward or simple manner as in the novel but this adaptation gave the second Mrs de Winter voice.
|Mrs Danvers' fate
Considering how deeply Mrs Danvers was obsessed (and possibly in love) with Rebecca, we shouldn't be surprised at what she did to herself. But as the novel never revealed what happened to Mrs Danvers at the end- if she was alive or dead- this shouldn't have been shown at all.
The ending is at least less not exactly open ended, the couple basking in each other's company as they face the future together, leaving the past entirely behind. Nomie's aura of innocence Maxim craved is visibly gone, but the look on his face when he joins her is that of a man who views an irreplaceable treasure.
This adaptation was far more modern than the previous adaptations, which was disappointing. As far as I'm concerned, book adaptations should not pander too much on the whims of the modern audience. Yet, it is a good, if not the best version.
Mrs de Winter's voice-over revealed she and Maxim were in Cairo. Daphne de Maurier was living in Egypt, where her husband was stationed, when she first started writing Rebecca.
Rebecca is Daphne Du Maurier's fifth novel.
Mrs de Winter: Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.