Rebecca tells the tale of Mrs De Winter, a young newlywed who finds herself out of her depth on an imposing family estate following a whirlwind romance. Try as it may, Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel is still superior. Being a Gothic romance, Hitchcock swathed Rebecca in a ghostly gloom with a sense of foreboding. As the master of suspense, his knack for enigmatic storytelling and summoning visceral power makes it a timeless classic. Remakes are a tricky business, especially when the original is still so highly regarded and you really have to outperform yourself to even come close to rivaling it.
It’s curious to try and figure out how Ben Wheatley landed the job to direct this country manor mystery romance drama. Having directed Free Fire, probably where he established a a good working relationship with Hammer, it seems his credentials were basically that he’s British, has a knack for suspense and watched Downton Abbey. While Hitchcock’s original must have been at the back of his mind, it’s like he tried to marry it with the Jennifer Lopez psychological thriller Cell. Immersing his audience in an ethereal soundscape with grand and surreal visuals, gives it a similar eerie intensity. While the atmosphere is dense and the audio-visuals are alluring to impressive, the mystery romance drama just doesn’t click.
Wheatley cast Lily James as Rebecca in an attempt to draw a beautiful-on-the-inside-and-outside character much like what Joan Fontaine brought to the role. James is a wonderful actress, who has been rising and rising. Her real breakthrough came in Cinderella with her playing the eponymous fairy tale character. Since accepting the glass slipper, she’s made herself indispensable to Hollywood with star-making roles in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Baby Driver, Yesterday and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. James is an it-girl, whose effervescent charm is just what the times ordered, getting great roles and bursting with an irrepressible sense of joy and truth. It should come as little surprise that the actress who played a “young Meryl Streep” should be the headline act for Rebecca opposite Armie Hammer.
“Talk dirty to me.”
Hammer’s no slouch either. While he’s probably best known for his dashing Prince Charming looks, he’s proven to be a valuable asset to any filmmaker with sharp turns in The Social Network, Call Me By Your Name, Hotel Mumbai and Free Fire. Hammer isn’t what you’d call a natural but chooses challenging projects and is growing in stature much like his Man from U.N.C.L.E. co-lead, Henry Cavill. These two up-and-coming starlets are complemented by a shadowy supporting performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers. While it could have gone darker, her sinister presence adds a layer of mystique and history.
While immersed in moody Gothic gloom, adorned with superb sound and artful visuals and starring some of today’s best up-and-coming actors, Rebecca stumbles. Hitchcock’s black-and-white mystery drama has been remade for modern audiences and as such is sumptuous, visually-striking, moody and plays like an old-fashioned ghost story. Keeping an air of mystery, spurred by a stellar cast and remaining a feast for the eyes, this remake looks and sounds the part creating a vivid and even breathtaking tapestry. While polished and beautiful to behold, it struggles to find the right balance when it comes to storytelling and character.
Unfortunately, this light touch is hampered by a miscast lead in James. While a fine actress, she seems out of place in the gloom and struggles to resuscitate a thinly scripted character, simply pushing off her supporting acts in Thomas and Hammer. Rebecca starts well with great chemistry between Hammer and James, reminiscent of Magic in the Moonlight, but the country estate mystery drama slowly sinks into tedium. It’s still a cinematic treat by virtue of its composure, yet doesn’t have the dramatic heft, suspense or deep connection to compel you with only hints of what Rebecca could have been. As Hitchcock would’ve said, it’s “stillborn”.
The bottom line: Underwhelming