Attempting to remake an Alfred Hitchcock film is always an audacious feat. Of course, that doesn't mean that many have not given into that temptation over the years. Director Gus Van Sant remade Hitchcock's famous film, Psycho in 1998, and filmmaker D.J Caruso's Disturbia (2007) was inspired by Hitchcock's 1954 film Rear Window. However, rarely had any of these remakes become box office hits or garner critical acclaim. The latest filmmaker to attempt to remake a Hitchcock film and fail at it miserably is Ben Wheatley.
Wheatley's newest offering, Rebecca, which premiered on Netflix recently, is an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 book which was turned into a very successful film by Hitchcock in 1940. In the book, Maurier tells the story of an unnamed narrator, who falls in love with a rich Englishman, a recent widower named Maxim De Winter while working as a lady's companion for an old woman. Within a fortnight of a whirlwind romance, Maxim De Winter asks her to marry him and takes her back to his magnificent estate, Manderley. On arrival, the narrator realizes that although Maxim's previous wife, Rebecca, is dead her presence is a strong guiding force for everyone at the estate, especially for the estate keeper, Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers is cold and cruel towards the narrator, constantly hammers her self-confidence with her snide remarks and passive-aggressive behavior.
The narrator is constantly made to feel inferior to Rebecca, and unworthy of being the lady of Manderley. She also finds herself isolated in her relationship with Maxim, as he clamps down his emotions. The domineering presence of Rebecca even after her death drives the narrator to a nervous breakdown, as she meditates on suicide. However, in the end, as the mystery of Rebecca's death begins to untangle, she finds her footing in her relationship and is able to break free of the toxicity.
Much like Hitchcock's adaptation, Wheatley's film, too, stays true to Du Maurier's story. However, while Hitchcock used the film medium to add intensity and more layers to the gothic romantic tale, tinted with psychological horror and tragedy, Wheatley only dilutes it. In Wheatley's version of Rebecca, every frame is beautifully lit, perhaps a little too much for a gothic film, but how is the audience to see the gritty shore on which the white waves crash at Manderley, or how will they appreciate the immaculate jaw structure of Armie Hammer without all that light? Unfortunately, there isn't much else to appreciate.
When Hitchcock made Rebecca in 1940, he chose not to show Rebecca's character but emphasized her indomitable presence by how other characters behaved onscreen, like where the dogs sat waiting for Rebecca even after her death, how Mrs. Danvers made the dinner menu keeping Rebecca's preferences in mind, how the rooms at Manderley were decorated and kept exactly the way she liked them. Rebecca's presence, even though she is never shown onscreen, is always more pronounced, despite the new Mrs. De Winter taking her place.
Wheatley follows Hitchcock's choice and shows Rebecca's impact on the narrator without ever showing Rebecca's character onscreen. Therefore, the film is pitch-perfect in the parts it focuses on the narrator's (Lily James) curiosity about the woman who is omnipresent at Manderley even after her death. Lily James as the second Mrs. De Winter delivers refined and measured performance, breathing vulnerability into her character, and brilliantly depicting how her insecurity leads to jealousy towards Rebecca, which in turn becomes an obsession. However, after that, as she becomes more isolated and even contemplates suicide, Wheatley falters because he cannot follow Hitchcock's black and white template to create tension onscreen or use his foreboding music which would appear too dated to the current audience. So, he abruptly goes into a surrealistic montage, which often features in pop videos, for almost a minute trying to show how the mental state of the narrator is in complete disarray. However, that montage is so jarring and non-aligned with the visual imagery that he uses in the rest of the film, that you almost get looped out of the story, and care very little about the narrator's plight.
Wheatley perhaps was too afraid to try something different or original with this film. Therefore, for most parts, it remains a pale shadow of Hitchcock's adaptation. For all the beautiful locales that Wheatley had the budget to film in, he doesn't have the mastery over the medium as Hitchcock did. If you want to understand what I mean go back to the 1940 film, and see how the camera moves as if it is following an invisible Rebecca during her last minutes alive, as Maxim recounts how Rebecca died, and I guarantee that you will have chills on your skin.
Also, despite narrating the tale 80 years after Hitchcock’s film, Wheatley didn't even bother to update it, which is just lazy, given that the original source material, that is Du Maurier's novel, gives one so many different themes to explore like female sexuality, society, and class, grief, and toxic relationships, which is perhaps the reason why this novel is so relevant even after 90 years. But more than anything, Wheatley fails at establishing the central romance between the narrator and Maxim De Winter, the reason for which she would stand by him despite the revelations he later makes to her.
The only thing going for this film is the amazing casting. Apart from James, Armie Hammer is spot on as Maxim De Winter although he has no accent to prove that the character is British. However, the most stunning performance comes from the devout Mrs. Danvers played with unfaltering conviction by Kristin Scott Thomas.