“Rebecca” is the story of a young woman collapsing under comparison to a predecessor, and the serviceable new Netflix adaptation suffers the same fate. The original 1940 film, itself an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, won legendary director Alfred Hitchcock his only Oscar and starred Laurence Olivier. Olivier remains synonymous with the very concept of great acting, just as the character of Rebecca de Winter is remembered as being the classiest, most gorgeous woman ever to walk to earth, the notion which is the very plot of the film. No one was ever going to say the 2020 version was better than the first one.
Even though this year’s “Rebecca” wasn’t that great, I now find myself in the position of defending it, because it wasn’t that bad either. Lily James (“Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella”) assumes the role played by the angelic Joan Fontaine decades earlier, and I think her performance translated the best to the contemporary version. This unnamed young protagonist is vacationing as a companion to a mean, rich lady when she catches the eye of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a hunky, cranky widower who is attracted to her guileless innocence. When he plucks her from poorly paid servitude and proposes to her, it seems like a Cinderella story.
However, once the lovers switch from their vacation setting and return to Manderley, Maxim’s imposing estate, their class differences become much more difficult to navigate. Maxim seems to cool to his new bride once he returns home, but worst of all is the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who never misses a chance to belittle and humiliate the new Mrs. De Winter. Kristin Scott Thomas ably steers her phenomenally passive-aggressive version of this character and makes it her own, adding a more overt layer of same-sex longing to her feelings for Rebecca, particularly her rather enviable stash of slinky sleepwear.
James’s version of Mrs. De Winter is more apt to stand up for herself — or at least attempt to — than in the Hitchcock film, making her a more palatable heroine for 2020 sensibilities. But she still shrinks under the thumb of Mrs. Danvers and has trouble communicating with her new husband as well. Hammer as Maxim was probably the least effective character in the film, and making the characters of Maxim and his new wife closer in age removes some of the dramatic tension between them. He takes some of the moral ambivalence of his character’s actions and makes them simply confusing with a rather opaque performance.
If you were not deeply attached to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” this film would probably strike you as a handsomely produced melodrama starring the tall guy from “Call Me By Your Name,” but I also think it’s hard to imagine a person who didn’t already like the older movie seeing a preview for this and choosing to watch it. The plot twists are quaint by our modern standards, and the truth about Rebecca’s demise, which I won’t spoil for these potential first-time viewers, does make it rather hard to ultimately root for Maxim and his second wife. On the other hand, this overall lukewarm story falls short of making them anti-heroes.
Suffering the worst, by comparison, is Sam Reilly, a decent character actor, as Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin and confidante. He plays a vital role in the plot, but in Hitchcock’s film, he was played by George Sanders, the mellifluous legend who I would argue is even less replaceable than Laurence Olivier. His iconic voice, so effective in every role from Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” to Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book,” could never be matched in its witheringly commanding tone. Not to pull a Mrs. Danvers in stating this, but his shoes could never be filled.
The romantic angle between Hammer and James is actually a rather strong selling point, and this film functions well as an almost Hallmark love story set in the past. They have multiple steamy, tastefully blurred love scenes together, and it’s conceivable you could invest in them as a couple whose natural chemistry is challenged by class and societal circumstances.
Like the second Mrs. De Winter, the contemporary viewer could enjoy “Rebecca” if freed from the constraints of comparison to a long-lost past. For better or worse (Ok, definitely for worse) I would imagine fewer Netflix subscribers can even identify Laurence Olivier than ever before, and they will find a romantic, but safely PG-13, mystery in 2020’s “Rebecca.”
“Rebecca” is currently streaming on Netflix.
New This Week:
“S#!%HOUSE”: A homesick college freshman forces himself out into the frat scene, forging a rare connection with his resident assistant, Maggie, in this hilarious and tender winner of the 2020 SXSW Grand Jury Award. Two young people raised in very different households, Alex and Maggie challenge each other and grow up together. Crescent Theater.
“Let Him Go”: Following the loss of their son, retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife, Margaret (Diane Lane), leave their Montana ranch to rescue their young grandson. When they discover he is in the clutches of a dangerous family living off the grid in the Dakotas, George and Margaret must fight for the survival of their family. Nexus Cinema Dining.
“Ghost”: The Mobile Saenger Theatre will show this 1990 romantic thriller as part of their film series on Thursday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.
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