Rebecca is the first major American adaptation of Dame Daphne du Maurier’s novel since the Alfred Hitchcock film in 1940.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – the second Mrs. de Winter says as the film opens with Clint Mansell’s haunting score. It’s one of the most famous opening lines in text or cinema. Not including this line would be criminal.
This is a contemporary update but in spite of that, the film feels like it could have been produced during Classic Hollywood. Obviously, there are some key differences and I’ll get to this in a moment. After falling in love at Monte Carlo, things change for better or worse when Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and second wife (Lily James) arrive move into Manderley. Maxim was previously married to the titular Rebecca but she has been dead for about a year. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Manderley estate housekeeper, won’t let Rebecca’s memory die. It’s haunting, indeed. Even if Maxim wants to move on, Mrs. Danvers does her best to make sure he doesn’t.
And then we get into the film’s third act. This is where the Oscar-winning 1940 film and the 2020 update differ. The endings are strikingly different. Again, I’ll discuss why in a few.
Unless you own the Criterion Blu-ray or DVD, there is a good chance that you probably haven’t seen Rebecca. The film is the first film that Alfred Hitchcock would direct for an American producer or studio. While it went on to earn 11 Oscar nominations, the film would only win two for Best Picture and Best Cinematography. Of all the films that Hitchcock would direct, only Rebecca would win the big prize.
One advantage of deciding to adapt the book in 2020 is that you don’t have the Production Code strictly enforcing film content. Because of this, the script can be an honest adaptation rather than force changes due to Joseph Breen’s strong views. Since the 1940 film isn’t available through streaming providers, I can only go by the written word. In the previous film, Rebecca’s drowning was completely accidental because of the Code but this film plays true to the book. Where Mrs. Danvers starts the fire in book and both films, she does not perish in the fire in this film. For more on the matter, be sure to check out Hitchcock and the Censors by John Billheimer (Kentucky Press).
I want to stress that Rebecca isn’t a remake. It’s a tricky subject when it comes to basing films on a novel. I mean, it’s already been some eighty years since Hitchcock first delivered a version. The thing that is so great about this version of Rebecca is that screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse don’t have censors to worry about. They don’t have Joseph Breen breathing down their necks.
Behind the camera, director Ben Wheatley teams up with cinematographer Laurie Rose for their eighth feature together. This kind of relationship can benefit filmmakers because you already have a sense of what the other is thinking. Rose succeeds in delivering a flavor of Classic Hollywood in the cinematography.
Manderley is a character in and of itself. Production Designer Sarah Greenwood brings the estate to life by utilizing a number of country houses and estates. How do you make something old feel new again? Greenwood is able to get the job done. And even though she’s dead, Rebecca still has so much influence over what you see inside the estate!
When it comes to awards season, this film is going to have to duke it out with Emma for costume design. Emma just might have the edge with the film taking place even earlier than this gothic tale. There’s some solid performances out of the three leading actors: Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas. That being said, Thomas may be the best bet in Supporting Actress. Whether the film can pick up nominations in other categories, I’m not sure. But enough about awards season.
Rebecca offers a contemporary update that could never have been accomplished during the Code era.
DIRECTOR: Ben Wheatley
SCREENWRITERS: Jane Goldman and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
CAST: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Ann Dowd, Sam Riley, Tom Goodman-Hill, Mark Lewis Jones, John Hollingworth, Bill Paterson