Rebecca: A grand story, unmade

Story: A young newlywed arrives at her husband's imposing family estate at Manderley, following a whirlwind romance, and finds herself burdened by the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy continues to haunt in the form of sinister housekeeper.

Review: As a child, devouring the gothic Hitchcockian Rebecca does leave its mark. The Daphne Du Maurier masterpiece added its own shades; so before watching Ben Wheatley’s adaptation, I had to consciously remind myself to refrain from undue comparisions. After all, Armie Hammer is no Laurence Olivier and Lily James pales in front of Joan Fontaine’s fragile beauty and that’s just not fair. But how does one live down a masterpiece and rise above its shadow? Especially, when it’s one of THE masterful psychological thriller of all times!

The moneyed widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) is vacationing in Monte Carlo when he runs into an unnamed paid companion (Lily James) and falls for her. A knee-jerk proposal later, they retire to his home estate in Manderley where the story is stirred by the scheming, unflappable housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The fact that the gothic romantic thriller with a strong whiff of horror has been reduced to a period drama is painful. James and Hammer are stylishly outfitted but the required passion is missing. She is believable yet boring, he, stiff and not proud enough. His accent is dreadful, and I wondered if casting an American in an all-British cast was wise, since he stuck out unnecessarily. The British thespian Thomas is the only actor worthy of mention, almost equalling the dread brought on by Judith Anderson, the imposing Mrs. Danvers of yore. She never skips an opportunity to nettle the new mistress, and does it with devious delight.

Rebecca, at its heart, is a love story wrapped in silence, riddles and secrets with a smattering of horror around a spectre. The book is narrated by the nameless new Mrs. de Winter, who is unnerved by the former Mrs’ shadow right till the very end. The unsettlingness of not knowing how a property catches fire or where the housekeeper disappears to, added to the aura of the tome. In Rebecca 2020, the extended relationship between Mrs. Danvers and the new Mrs. de Winter, and the finality of the former’s fate and her explanations of her actions detract from that familiar sense of ambiguity that the novel held and dark spell it cast.

The film feels too rushed—be it the romance or the easy forgiveness the lead character accords her husband. That does build a stronger case for the sinister housekeeper and I did find myself a tad conflicted, swayed by her pining that made her more human than the rest. I can easily imagine the movie from her point-of-view.

The new adaptation is shiny and pretentious, the supporting cast able, the production stupendous (reminded me of Baz Luhermann’s patent vision). The movie is faithful to the book, but only literally with the soul missing. While it’s luscious enough to invite in the Insta-familiar crowds, it’ll fail to dazzle them. I felt zero chills unlike the case of the b/w classic and therein lies the failing.

The challenge to revive such a lauded classic is understandable, but how to revive it successfully is yet to be seen, I guess. Till then I’m revisiting my childhood favourite thriller, and suggest you do the same.

Title: Rebecca

Platform: Netflix

Director: Ben Wheatley

Cast: Armie Hammer, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley

Rating: 1.5 star

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