Netflix’s “Rebecca” Passes the Time

Posted on October 21, 2020

Netflix’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca is … fine.

Sometimes, the first line of a review practically writes itself and in this instance, the self-written line becomes the entire review. We’ll expand on it because it would be lazy to leave things there, but over and over again, when contemplating what to say about this new adaptation, starring Armie Hammer as a supposedly grief-stricken wealthy widower and Lily James as the unprepossessing woman who must step into his dead wife’s shoes, the first – and if we’re being honest, only – sentiment that comes to mind is that it’s just … fine.

Not “fine” in the sense of being finely crafted, but in the sense of being a perfectly acceptable thing to watch to pass the time. The leads are pretty, the costumes, locations and sets are lovely to look at; the acting is … acceptable. If we’re not exactly filling you up with anticipation to watch, well… the film itself didn’t offer us many reasons to do so.

We’re not of the opinion that classic films and/or novels that have been adapted more than once can’t be freshened up for a new audience. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson is a tough act to beat but it’s also not available to stream anywhere and we don’t think Netflix or the filmmakers are out of line for thinking that a new version might find an audience that’s unfamiliar with the 80-year-old film. This version has been talked up as a “sexy” take, although to be honest, we’ve seen Hallmark Christmas movies with more heat. We’d love to write this review without referencing Hitchcock’s film, but unfortunately, this version lacks the one thing it needs most, which was, not coincidentally, the one thing that defined the 1940 version: a deep, oppressive moodiness that felt almost supernatural in nature. A ghost story without an actual ghost. This version, directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, lacks any of the gothic noir atmosphere of the original film and novel. Instead, with its sunny scenes in grand hotels and great English estates, Rebecca comes off more like an episode of Downton Abbey; less about the ghost of the title character and more about costumes, grand rooms, and devious servants.

A Rebecca adaptation more or less lives or dies by its Mrs. Danvers and Kristen Scott-Thomas does an admirable job filling the murderously evil housekeeper’s sensible shoes, but she’s simply not given enough to do to make the character her own. Lily James is perfectly fine (yes, there’s that word again) as the second Mrs. de Winter and manages Joan Fontaine’s trick of being both beautiful and insecure at the same time. Armie Hammer is simply terrible as Maxim de Winter. He’s badly cast in the part and doesn’t have the acting chops to pull off the character’s combination of aristocratic asshole and grieving, broken man. He’s just … pretty to look at.

It’s a good thing the film landed on Netflix, because that venue is the only reason why we’d recommend anyone watch this version. Put it on and let it play in the background. Every once in a while, something pretty appears, whether it’s a garden, a ballroom, a sweeping view of the Riviera or just Armie Hammer in a bright yellow suit. Aside from that, there’s little reason to watch. It’s not an awful film, just a perfectly acceptable one. Cinematic wallpaper.

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