Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…again. Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel “Rebecca” has only been adapted for the screen a small handful of times since it was first published in 1938 — most famously by Alfred Hitchcock for his 1940 Best Picture winner of the same name — but the shadow cast by its haunted tale of wealth and obsession has grown long enough to spark a feeling of déjà vu whenever someone films another melodrama in a musty English manor, let alone dares to exhume Rebecca herself.
Needless to say, revisiting Manderley is tempting and dangerous in equal measure. On the one hand, there’s something accessibly timeless to du Maurier’s rather simple interwar story about a rich widower named Maxim de Winter, the guileless new bride he plucks out of the precariat, and the sprawling Cornwall estate he invites her to share with him and the lingering presence of his dead first wife. On the other hand, “Rebecca” is by nature a book that’s violently resistant to any kind of change; it’s possessed by a malevolent spirit that would sooner burn Manderley to the ground than let anyone so much as replace the curtains.
To that end, it’s understandable why the loud and love-drunk new version that Ben Wheatley has made with a sunken boatload of Netflix money is neither faithful to a fault, nor glossy beyond all recognition (though it alternately feels like both at various points along the way). Despite its title, this “Rebecca” is decidedly modeled after the second Mrs. de Winter instead of the first. Soapy where Hitchcock’s interpretation was stiff, the film is beautiful and hurried and eager to be liked by everyone in a way that will only lead to trouble. It dutifully respects Manderley’s past, while at the same time revitalizing that drafty mausoleum with an Instagram-ready sheen.
But of the many things that Wheatley’s version has in common with its heroine — nameless as ever until she inherits the title that Rebecca left behind and becomes a living sequel to a movie she’s never seen — one is more crucial than all the rest: This “Rebecca” is deeply in love. Here’s an adaptation that strives to repaint Manderley without pissing off any of the spirits that continue to haunt its memory, and the perfume-scented romance of that new patina can be thick enough to make you see du Maurier’s story in a slightly different (if not altogether flattering) light.
Making the most of the “Grace Kelly next door” vibe she’s tapped into several times before (“Cinderella,” “Baby Driver,” and “Yesterday” being three prime examples), Lily James is always believable as the kind of person who finds themselves living a fairy tale, and therefore perfectly cast as a low-status lady’s companion who fumbles through a Monte Carlo resort as if waiting to be rescued by her ultra-rich Prince Charming. Enter: Armie Hammer’s Maxim de Winter, who’s certainly large enough to fill Laurence Olivier’s shoes, but also stiff in a way that suggests he might be wearing them on the wrong foot.
Dressed in a mustard suit and a red tie that makes him look like a squeeze bottle of condiments in search of some fresh meat to slather, Maxim takes an instant shine to the guileless English girl he meets at the hotel restaurant. She’s an ill-fitting crush for a severe man who treats everything like a secret except for his wealth, but they’re both very pretty and the cologne ad chemistry between them is enough to hold our attention through a clipped prologue that never takes a moment to breathe in the Mediterranean air. (At least Ann Dowd offers some potent comic relief as James’ gruesomely classist boss in the kind of low-angle performance that still manages to look down on you.)
The sunny intro is meant to be a striking contrast to the Gothic dreariness that awaits Maxim and his new wife back at Manderley, but its artificial saturation and candied lighting provides a rather accurate idea of the hyper-vivid “Alice in Wonderland” aesthetic that Wheatley and his usual cinematographer Laurie Rose have lent to this entire story; if this “Rebecca” initially seems caught somewhere between Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton, a quick tour of de Winter’s haunted mansion clarifies that we’re closer to ersatz Guillermo del Toro (Manderley was apparently constructed at the base of Crimson Peak).
Kerry Brown / Netflix
Despite her insistence that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, the newly-minted second Mrs. de Winter is surprised by the degree to which Rebecca’s presence still lingers in the long corridors of the home she once shared. Rebecca is still tangled like seaweed in the second Mrs. de Winter’s hairbrush; Rebecca is still watching over her former spouse through the massive portraits that hang above the Manderley staircase; Rebecca is still shivering through the servants’ quarters like a cold snap whenever her humble successor forgets that she now “belongs” upstairs.
It doesn’t help that thin-lipped caretaker Mrs. Danvers never misses an opportunity to remind the new lady of the house that she’s living in someone else’s home. While Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse’s script neglects to illuminate the character’s obsessive darkness — a sexual undertow that du Maurier alluded to, and Hitchcock wiggled around — Kristin Scott Thomas is ghoulishly excellent in what feels like an extended audition for the “Rebecca” prequel series that Ryan Murphy will surely pitch to Netflix soon if he hasn’t already.
Elsewhere, however, this “Rebecca” is all too eager to entertain the morbid plot details that David O. Selznick deemed unsuitable in 1940, as this movie tackles the scandalous truth of its namesake’s disappearance with the same directness that du Maurier first wrote about it. If Wheatley seems a bit lost at sea whenever the mystery of it all takes hold (you can almost feel him grimacing behind the camera during the perfunctory courtroom scenes that punctuate the third act), he predictably delights in the sinister business that Mrs. Danvers presides over like the queen of the underworld. His “Rebecca” is less dream than nightmare, and his Manderley catches fire in the rare moments when the second Mrs. de Winters seems to be in imminent danger.
Wheatley identifies an almost Orphic quality to Maxim’s latest marriage, and the most radical thing about this adaptation is the not-so-insistent notion that Maxim’s relationship with his new wife actually matters as much as any of the things that threaten to destroy it. But “Rebecca” itself is shackled to a memory — or at least to its source material — and the funhouse romance that Wheatley tries to rescue from it is suffocated under red herrings and side plots that only felt relevant when this story was more devoted to its suspense (poor Sam Riley and Tom Goodman-Hill, wasted in the wind).
There’s an itch of something real between Hammer and James in the first 10 minutes, and it ought to grow stronger as their characters chafe against the merciless bonds created by my money and class and titles. But he’s quickly reduced to Beasting around Manderley like a magic rose is wilting in the west wing, she’s given little to do but wander the hallways with the queasy discomfort of someone who’s urgently looking for the loo.
Lustrous as it can be to look at, Wheatley’s vision of Manderley falls short of the extreme renovation fans might have hoped for when the man behind some of the most feral movies in recent memory was hired to put a fresh spin on a novel that no one can forget. From “Kill List” to “High-Rise” and the relentlessly hostile “A Field in England,” Wheatley has never been one to hedge his bets or compromise his vision, so it’s curious that he would slap on a pair of velvet handcuffs and volunteer to make something that’s so beholden to the past. His “Rebecca” only forges its own identity after nearly being subsumed into the shadow of what came before it, and by that point this film so clearly mirrors the qualities of the second Mrs. de Winter that her name — whatever it is — may have provided a more fitting title for it.
“Rebecca” will be available to stream on Netflix on Wednesday, October 21.