‘Reheated leftovers in soft-focus’ – Netflix’s adaption of Rebecca - whynow

‘Reheated leftovers in soft-focus’ – Netflix’s adaption of Rebecca

When looking to explain the alienating effects of the internet age, commentators often point to the fractured natured of our 21st century viewing habits. With the ubiquity of on-demand, and a few hundred different platforms to choose from, we no longer all watch the same thing at the same time. Meaning we no longer have shared experiences, and all the artificial unity that comes with them. 

Well, now that the whole nation, and most of the world, are sequestered on their sofas, the producers have us exactly where they want us. So, what’s for dinner?

This week, it’s Rebecca, a 1938 Daphne du Maurier story that’s already been adapted into a blockbuster movie once, in 1940, by a little-known filmmaker called Alfred Hitchcock; and into a BBC miniseries in 1979 starring Joanna David; and, more recently, into an ITV miniseries, starring Emilia Fox, Joanna David’s daughter.

The latest attempt comes courtesy of Netflix, whose ‘originals’, which once rained down at a dizzying rate, have assumed a slower drip in the lockdown era. Featuring Lily James, Rebecca is one of its prize assets, and its release would seem to come at a perfect time for the streaming giant: a world desperately seeking escapism, and freshly scandalised by the amatory actions of its leading lady.

Unfortunately, for Lily James at least, her off-screen antics are far more engaging than what she offers up here. For those unaware of the original novel, or any subsequent adaptation, Rebecca is the story of a lowly maid (James) who falls in love with a widowed aristocrat, Maxim de Winter, while on duty in the South of France.

Freed from her servitude by marriage, she returns to his stately home (Manderley!) with her new husband, played by an improbably broad-shouldered Armie Hammer, only to find herself tormented by the intense psychodrama swirling around her predecessor’s death.

Unlike the titular former Mrs de Winter, Lily James’s protagonist remains on a purely surname basis throughout the film, giving her a kind of desperate insignificance that begins to infect her own self-image. This is the most intelligent aspect of a deeply silly script apparently written by three whole adults.

The paucity of dialogue is so pronounced I kept hoping for some words to be spoken only to retract that thought a second later when a character stared wistfully into the distance and intoned, “I do believe she was the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on.”

This remake has all the worst aspects of its predecessors—hammy dialogue, hammy costume, hammy lighting—without any redeeming originality.

Miss James comes in for a lot of stick, but I personally don’t agree with her critics. After all, despite the potential awards and reviews on offer, when it comes down to it, an actor’s success must surely be measured by their big-name roles. And, at the moment, Lily seems to have more of these than just about anyone else.

The more glaring casting issue is her opposite number. Maxim de Winter is supposed to be a man haunted by his past and deeply ambivalent about his present. The problem is, in his bright yellow suit, Armie Hammer seems about as haunted as the Norwood branch of PC World. Which, I admit, might actually be the most haunting thing imaginable. But not in the right way. His character is meant to be repressed but his default expression throughout is simply: blank.

Any caloricity must therefore come from Kristen Scott Thomas, who is on top form as Mrs Danvers, Manderley’s fearsome housekeeper. Her villainy, while cartoonish, perfectly matches the highly stylised nature of the production. But, conversely, serves to suck whatever life might remain from the two leads.

The whole thing reeks of Sunday night on ITV and looks like a Galaxy chocolate advert as imagined by Julian Fellowes (not helped by the fact that Rebecca seems to have adorned everything in Manderley with her cringe Roger Federer-esque personal logo).

All this makes the choice of Ben Wheatley as the actual director very surprising. I can only imagine the supposed auteur behind High Rise and Kill List was picked to ramp up the psychological aspect of the story. And there are attempts at making this seem different from your usual period drama (dream sequences and jittery shots) while exploring what lies beneath the character’s stiff exteriors. The only problem is, there appears to be nothing there.

A half-hearted adaptation of a classic tale is nothing new—Rebecca kept reminding me of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, a similarly all style no substance production. Maybe it’s churlish of me to expect anything else. But we are living through incredibly fraught times and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want more from art than reheated leftovers in soft focus. If the cultural insecurity of our age just means more and more adaptations of the same old stories then don’t waste your time with this—wait for the next Rebecca to come along.

Rampa  They Will Be