Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.
United Kingdom/USA, 2020. Netflix, Working Title Films. Screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Cinematography by Laurie Rose. Produced by Raphael Benoliel, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park. Music by Clint Mansell. Production Design by Sarah Greenwood. Costume Design by Julian Day. Film Editing by Jonathan Amos.
Daphne Du Maurier’s literary masterpiece has lived vibrantly in the hearts of cinema lovers for decades thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture-winning adaptation in 1940, which was followed by a few forgettable television miniseries remakes in the years since and now, understandably, has been remade for the big screen by Netflix; the once-censored ending is restored and vibrant colours have replaced George Barnes’s moody, Oscar-winning monochrome cinematography. Remakes of noted classics aren’t the sacrilege that some make them out to be, giving audiences what they already know has been a staple of entertainment since Ancient Greek theatre, but even when one approaches the revisiting of a beloved favourite with an open mind, there’s no denying the massive disappointments to be found here. Lily James plays the unnamed “I” who narrates the tale, beginning as the paid lady’s companion to a vulgar dowager (Ann Dowd) who meets a haunted widower named Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while serving her mistress in Monte Carlo. He is charmed by her lack of pretense and the two spend so much time together that, by the time Dowd decides they need to leave, he instead proposes marriage and takes our heroine to his country manor Manderley and away from her low-paid drudgery. She is out of the frying pan and into the fire when she arrives at the manse and discovers that being the wife of the gentry isn’t a romantic fable come true but an actual job, requiring her to take command of the staunch housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, towering in perfection as always) and deal with the ghost that haunts the house: Rebecca, Maxim’s first late wife, was the ideal model of womanhood, wifeliness and class, and because she could do no wrong, the second Mrs. De Winter can never do anything right.
This new adaptation, directed by a surprisingly uninspired Ben Wheatley, adds a few frilly details here and there but, for the most part, sticks to Du Maurier’s narrative. James’s character discovers secrets that reveal the truth about her husband’s first marriage and Rebecca’s death that will symbolize the break between the old world of stratified life and the new post-war social mobility that the fate of Manderley represents. The problem is that the centre of the story is missing: Hammer is on screen too little and barely makes an impression when he appears, the joke of having a real-life heir to a fortune playing to the manor born isn’t something exploited for kicks. The volatile nature of Maxim, who treats his second wife with kindness out of genuine love but also has a temper that can take off like a lit match, is what keeps her in such anxiety throughout most of the story, the spine of which is spent having her trying to figure out why it is that he grows so distant from her as soon as they get to his ancestral home. This is, admittedly, a new adaptation of Du Maurier’s book and not a remake of Hitchcock’s film, but Wheatley, who has made experimental period pieces like A Field In England and the very eccentric High Rise, surprises his fans by seeming to just cash the cheque and point the camera, dampening down all of the story’s conflicts and avoiding any kind of narrative urgency: the scene of Joan Fontaine desperate for the phone to ring so she can speak to Maxim before her employer takes her away from Monte Carlo, saved just seconds before losing her chance at love, is now a bland scene of her telling him what’s happening and him making plans, there’s no tension or danger (and the central sequence involving a costume party faux pas? Pale, to say the least).
Comparing this version with Hitchcock, which you may mean to avoid doing with good intentions and sincerity, is unavoidable when you find yourself wondering where all the conflict has gone, why is Mrs. Danvers not unhealthily obsessed with Rebecca, why is she just really good at her job? And where is the volatility between the main couple that veers between passion and misunderstanding so quickly and so dangerously because they haven’t worked out the conflicts of their difference in age and class? The inequality in power in their relationship may not comfort the modern viewer, who foolishly thinks that anything but inequality can exist in a sexual relationship, but it is also what contributes to how sexy and interesting their marriage is, while the screenwriters, likely angry at Du Maurier’s very unfashionable treatment of her character as a background figure in a tale she is narrating (so much so that she doesn’t even get a name), decide to rearrange a few plot details in the conclusion to give her more to do. Du Maurier might be appalled to see her character turned into a modern-day heroine, attempts to rehabilitate female protagonists of the past and connect them the ideal of self-determined feminism of today usually do so without the cool irony and subversion that Du Maurier loved so much (witness how many women in her books are turned on by men specifically because they know they’ve killed someone). Besides, the whole joke of the novel was about women having to live as ghosts in real life under the unreasonable expectations of idealized female archetypes that don’t actually exist (not giving her a name was part of this sly cynicism, as was having her succeed by simply outliving the actual dead woman). Moreover, since these narrative changes are only in action and not theme, they come across as weakly as the bad computer graphics and tame sexual chemistry between all the characters do, revealing a film that is all plot but no soul.