‘REBECCA’, a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Marier, was first made into a movie by Alfred Hitchock in 1940. It was his first movie in America after establishing a career in England and it won Oscar best picture. He didn’t win any other Oscar after that and he never won as best director even for his later more iconic films like “Psycho” and “North by Northwest”.
When we saw the first “Rebecca” on DVD, we found it too contrived and we wondered why it won over more such more worthy entries that year, like the screwball romcom “The Philadelphia Story” by George Cukor with a madcap performance by Katharine Hepburn (but it was James Stewart who won as Oscar best actor), Charlie Chaplin’s classic comedy “The Great Dictator”, the classic play “Our Town” and the gripping Depression drama, “The Grapes of Wrath”, directed by John Ford (who won as best director of 1940.)
We read that “Rebecca” won because its producer, David Selznick, campaigned heavily to make it win as he has just also won Oscar best picture award in the past year, 1939, for “Gone with the Wind”. Now, British director Ben Wheatley (best known for the black comedy-action “Free Fire” which also starred Armie Hammer) is brave enough to do a new “Rebecca”, currently streaming on Netflix.
Hitchcock’s films have been remade before, like “Psycho” and “The 39 Steps”, but the newer versions all paled in comparison to the originals. But the “Rebecca” remake is something else. Of course, the purists will say Hitchcock has made a definitive version, but we beg to disagree.
To those who are not familiar with the story, “Rebecca” is set in the 1930s about an orphan girl (Lily James of “Cinderella”) working as Girl Friday for a rich woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. Her name is never mentioned and she’s only addressed later as Mrs. de Winter. She’s actually the second Mrs. de Winter as the first one is the Rebecca of the title, who’s already dead when the story starts.
Rebecca’s husband is the very wealthy Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer of “Call Me By Your Name”), owner of the sprawling seaside estate called Manderley that is 300 years old. Despite the apparent difference in their social standing, Max is charmed by the girl’s vivaciousness. Before her employer can take her to New York, he marries her then they leave sunny France to go home to Manderley in gloomy England. There, she meets the icy cold mayordoma, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, more effective than the Etang Discher version of Judith Anderson in the original.)
It’s obvious from the start that Mrs. Danvers and the other household staff don’t like the new Mrs. De Winter. The poor girl justifiably felt so out of place as the presence of Rebecca, who is said to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived, is still very much felt by everyone in the mansion. They even conspire to embarrass her in front of their guests during a masquerade ball.
The story is also constructed like a mystery as they avoid mentioning what caused the death of the first Mrs. De Winter. Soon, her remains were discovered at sea and Max is accused of killing her and it becomes the task of the second Mrs. De Winter to help discover the truth on what really happened.
This new version is certainly more involving as it also becomes a coming of age story showing the metamorphosis of the young heroine from being an inexperienced orphan to a more self assured wife who stands by her husband all the way. We daresay that we enjoyed this new version even more than Hitchock’s, which looks dated as of now.
An element in the new movie not found in the original is Max doing some sleepwalking to the room of his late wife at the dead of night. When his wife is about to wake him up, the creepy Mrs. Danvers suddenly pops up behind her to warn about the dangers of waking up someone who is sleepwalking.
The new version also offers lavishly beautiful coastline scenery seen when the characters go to Rebecca’s boathouse. The old movie has limited exterior scenes and looks more like shot on a set. The new Mrs. Danvers is also more scheming, more manipulative than the first one. Why she’s so loyal to Rebecca is adequately explained and her confrontation with the heroine is more shattering, where she says that Max will never love her “because you are not her. He’ll leave and divorce you.”
Mrs. Danvers has really longer participation in the remake as she is even called to testify against Max during the investigation. In the first movie, she is shown dying inside Manderley which she set on fire. In the new movie, she is given a much more cinematic death scene.
In the novel, it’s really Max who killed Rebecca for taunting him, but in the first movie the censorship codes of that era forbids a lead character to kill someone and get away with it, so they rewrote the movie. In the new version, they revert to what happened in the novel and the heroine helps Max to cover up his crime.
A supporting character in the story is Jack Favell, the cousin of Rebecca who was also her lover. He plays a bigger role in the first movie with George Sanders giving a slithering portrayal of the blackmailing scalawag. Here, he is played by Max Riley (“Maleficent”) who fails to make an impression.
We’ve enjoyed Lily James’ performance in “Downton Abbey”, “Baby Driver”, “Darkest Hour” and the “Mamma Mia” sequel. Here, she gives another refreshing performance as the unnamed heroine who married above her station, innocent and unsuspecting at the start then slowly getting more and more paranoid with hallucinations that seem to plague her, like vines from the floor creeping up on her and eating her up, and being more resolute and determined by the film’s last act.
Armie Hammer is every inch the rich romantic leading man in the scenes shot in France and gets more and more credibly serious as he gets to face his dark past and the horror surrounding the death of his first wife. But of course, the one who really stands out is Kristin Scott Thomas as the quietly intense but villainous Mrs. Danvers who looks like she’s forever afflicted with incipient madness.