Rebecca, the 1938 gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, has one of those perfect opening lines: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
As the first chapter continues, the narrator goes on to describe walking into the country house of Manderley: how it was once perfect and now is ruined, how it used to be hers to love and luxuriate in. Then she goes on to describe the small, sad life she lives now in exile, and you know something awful must have happened for her to end up here.
Gothic horror lives and dies by its elisions, by what cannot be said, and there is so much unspoken here. What’s left now is only a sense of lost luxury and decay and corruption, of a once-great house gone dark and moldering. You read the rest of Rebecca to find out what happened to Manderley, and you know that anything encountered after Manderley can only be a disappointment.
This is a story told by a sad, dry woman living a sad, dry life. Manderley, the object of her fetishistic obsession, is gone now. She will never be happy without it.
That sense of corrosive nostalgia is where du Maurier’s Rebecca starts, and an ideal adaptation of the novel would find a way to recreate that mood on film. (Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca does it beautifully, outside of the Hayes Code-mandated hash it makes of the ending.) But Netflix’s messy and disappointing new film adaptation of Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley, doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling it off.
Wheatley’s Rebecca begins with that perfect opening line, just as Hitchcock’s adaptation did before it. But unlike other versions of Rebecca, Wheatley’s comes back around to that opening line again at the very end of the film. And I’m going to spoil for you exactly how Wheatley reprises that line, because the way you feel about this choice will determine whether or not this Rebecca is a waste of your time.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” says Lily James in voiceover, as she plays our unnamed heroine frowning in her sleep. And then she wakes up, and this is what we hear as her voiceover continues:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. I dreamt of Mrs. Danvers, and of Rebecca.
But this morning I woke up and left the dead behind. And as I sit before the mirror in our stuffy little room in Cairo — just another stop on our quest to find a real home — I can see the woman I am now. And I know that I have made the right decision. To save the one thing worth walking through flames for. Love.
At the close of this speech, she turns to her husband, Maxim (Armie Hammer), who is shirtless and appears to be oiled for some reason, and swoons into his arms. And the camera fades to black.
It is undoubtedly healthy for this version of our narrator to stop obsessing over Manderley, leave the dead behind, and focus on love. And undoubtedly there is no reason you could not make a perfectly nice film about this version of her. She’s a plucky young woman with sound emotional boundaries and a kicky beret collection. She finds true love with a rich widower who hates shirts and then, after the tragic destruction of his country house, leaves everything behind to travel the world with him. Emily in Paris as a period piece, with a fire. Why not?
But for reasons that remain a mystery to me, Wheatley seems to be insisting that Emily in Cairo and Also It Is the ’40s must also be du Maurier’s Rebecca, at the same time. He’s made a film that wants to be a frothy, aspirational love story between two attractive and emotionally healthy people with great wardrobes — and also wants to be a piece of gothic horror about a terrible woman and her love for a great house.
The result fails to be either gothic, horrifying, or enjoyable frothy. Instead, Wheatley’s Rebecca seems destined to please no one.
This Rebecca is plagued by the desire to make its protagonists likable. That’s a losing battle.
The elision at the center of Rebecca, the absence around which its gothic horror is built, is the elision of Rebecca herself, Maxim’s mysteriously dead first wife. We never meet her on the page, but we get loving descriptions of all the petty detritus of her life: her hairbrush, her nightgown, her flowers, her stationery. Most of all there is Rebecca’s handwriting, with the bold and dashing R that the unnamed protagonist cannot help but compare to her own dull schoolgirl cursive. She sees that R everywhere, and every time she sees it she is reminded of her inferiority compared to Rebecca.
The protagonist has married Rebecca’s widower husband, rich and handsome Maxim de Winter, after Rebecca’s mysterious death. In du Maurier’s novel, the protagonist is a dull little thing, so self-effacing that she doesn’t even have a name. Still, she’s compelling to read, because she’s animated by both a ferocious desire to force everyone to like her and a miserable certainty that she is too awkward and gauche ever to do so successfully, so that her sentences seethe with frustrated rage. Critics usually call her the second Mrs. de Winter, and she wears the splendor of that moniker like a silk ball gown several sizes too big: It doesn’t fit her.
But from the first moment Lily James bounds across the screen with the easy confidence of those born beautiful, it becomes apparent Wheatley’s version of the second Mrs. de Winter will be different. This version of the character makes charmingly nerdy speeches about fun palm tree facts she has picked up from her extensive reading. She has evolved and well-adjusted motivations, such as her longing to travel and see the world and the depth and purity of her love for Maxim.
And when the second Mrs. de Winter strolls into Manderley with a jaunty blue beret perched on her Grace Kelly bob, it’s clear that if she upsets the order of things in this house, it won’t be because she’s too gauche and too awkward to know better. It’s because she is so fresh and modern that she is bringing this fusty old country house into the 20th century out of the sheer force of her adorable pluck.
Maxim, who whispers dolefully that all marriages must have their secrets and sleepwalks at night, is assuredly hiding something. But it can’t be anything all that dark in this version of the story. Hammer plays Maxim as a sort of stuffed shirt with broad shoulders: lovely to look at, covered in luxurious fabrics and wealth of all sorts, and far, far too dull to have any very compelling mysteries to plumb. He’s romantic enough to sweep the second Mrs. de Winter off her feet, but there’s not that much more to him. He’s the sort of generic love interest that is that sweet young girl’s due.
Wheatley’s protagonists are, in a word, likable, and that seems to be the ethos animating this adaptation: Let’s make it likable, even if that means making it bland. Let’s give her a coherent if basic personality instead of leaving her a seething mass of neuroses. Let’s smooth out that bizarre power dynamic between Mrs. de Winter and Maxim, the one where it seems like he picked her up because he likes that she’s so profoundly insecure that he can dominate her emotionally the way he couldn’t Rebecca. Let’s make them have soft-focus sex on the beach in Monte Carlo, and hold hands and giggle like teenagers as they walk into Manderley. Let’s make this all unproblematic and easy to root for.
It is of course any director’s prerogative to make bold changes when adapting a classic, but worrying about the main characters’ likability strikes me as a truly bizarre focus to take when adapting Rebecca. That’s because the big plot twist in this story, which Wheatley leaves more or less intact, is that although the protagonist is worried that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca, he’s not. He actually murdered Rebecca in cold blood and is worried about covering up the murder. And when the second Mrs. de Winter learns this fact, she is ecstatic with relief.
“Maxim did not love Rebecca,” she thinks in du Maurier’s novel. “He had never loved her, never, never. They had never known one moment’s happiness together. Maxim was talking, and I listened to him, but his words meant nothing to me. I did not really care.”
In du Maurier’s Rebecca, these are not nice people. Their love story is not healthy or aspirational. The second Mrs. de Winter is a small and awful person who is eager to overlook a murder for a chance at emotional approval and material luxury. Maxim is icy and withholding, ready to kill one wife when she angers him and careful to select a second too riddled with anxiety to ever risk doing the same. They are very far from being likable, and that is what makes them interesting. The fact of their unlikability is part of what makes Rebecca a great novel.
Nevertheless, Wheatley rejiggers this gothic horror story at every opportunity to cast the most flattering possible light on his blandly likable stars. He reframes Rebecca’s death so that she comes right up to the point of pulling the trigger of the gun for Maxim, leaving him with as little responsibility as possible for the murder. In the criminal investigation that comprises the film’s final act, Maxim becomes the underdog, the dark horse it’s easy to root for. He’s the victim of a detective determined to humiliate him, who sneers in Maxim’s face that “no one’s above the law” while the second Mrs. de Winter pluckily works to cover up clues.
Du Maurier’s version, in contrast, has Maxim refusing to bother to cover up clues. He doesn’t need to, because the detective, who likes attending Manderley parties, goes out of his way to avoid casting any kind of suspicion on him. The implication there is that Maxim is above the law, because he is rich and socially powerful, and we live in a classist society.
Personally, I think that’s a much more interesting idea to examine than the idea that sometimes aristocrats should be allowed to get away with murdering their wives because it wasn’t really their fault but then mean detectives go after them anyway but luckily their industrious young wife solves everything in the end. But then, I am not Ben Wheatley!
Kristin Scott Thomas is an extraordinary Mrs. Danvers. But she can’t save this movie.
If there’s a shining bright spot in Wheatley’s Rebecca, it’s Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who was devoted to Rebecca. Thomas plays Mrs. Danvers with eyes as flinty as ice and her impeccable lipstick frozen in a permanent sneer, so when she says, “Welcome to Manderley,” to the second Mrs. de Winter, the clear subtext is, Die, bitch.
Mrs. Danvers is the only person in this movie who seems to think the story is gothic horror, and she is committed: rhapsodizing about dead Rebecca as she viciously tugs Rebecca’s hairbrush through the second Mrs. de Winter’s hair; murmuring like a snake in the second Mrs. de Winter’s ear about how she can’t hold a candle to Rebecca and it would be easier for everyone if she just jumped right on out the window.
Thomas carries so much intensity in her gaze that she could walk away with the movie easily even if she weren’t trying. And since she is in fact committed so hard and so gleefully that she might as well be holding the whole film at gunpoint and shouting, “This is a stickup,” well, the film’s hers before she finishes delivering her first line.
But even Mrs. Danvers can’t escape Wheatley’s commitment to making everyone as likable and boring as possible. She gets a whole speech to the second Mrs. de Winter that seems to be loosely aiming for the ethos of Greta Gerwig’s lovely Little Women adaptation, about how limited women’s choices are and how women who have chosen different paths to succeed in this difficult world must support each other. It turns out in the end to be part of her evil plot to humiliate Mrs. de Winter — but the entire idea of a Mrs. Danvers who would think in feminist terms, even to manipulate, is foreign to the character and to the genre. It feels ported in from that Emily in Old-Timey Cairo movie Wheatley is refusing to commit to, even though it’s clearly the movie he would prefer to make.
But that, in the end, is the big problem plaguing Rebecca. Ben Wheatley has no business making a gothic romantic horror movie if he is not interested in gothic romantic horror, and on the evidence of this film, he is not. So instead, he has made a Rebecca without purpose or soul, about two blandly nice people who commit and then cover up a murder but it’s okay because they’re nice, and then afterward they have dully nice sex in Egypt.
Wheatley’s Rebecca is a horror film that is resolutely sure there is nothing horrifying going on here at all, actually. And as soon as some enterprising Kristin Scott Thomas stan has put together a supercut of all of her scenes from this movie that you can easily play on YouTube, there will be no reason for anyone to watch this movie, ever.