Where’s the gothic? Where’s the ghosties? When I hear “haunted” and “battling shadows” then I expect ghosties.
Boy oh boy. Director Jason Wheatley, what are you doing? I haven’t even read Rebecca, the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, but I heard it’s praises sung in the lit classes of my historically women’s college enough that I am offended by this presentation. Pshaw.
You can watch the long, not scary and not very thrilling Netflix adaptation of Rebecca, or you can use 2 hours of your life on something enjoyable. But, hey, the actors did a good job (especially you, Kristin Scott Thomas), and Manderley sure is pretty!
***spoilers, but do you really care?***
The story begins with the unnamed Mademoiselle (Lily James) narrating about thinking about her past. Viewers follow Mademoiselle as she works as a lady’s companion for the rowdy and rich Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) on her European vacay.
When Mrs. Van Hopper hears word of the also rich widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) staying at their hotel, she commands Mademoiselle to bribe the maitre d’ to seat Mr. de Winter near her for lunch. While trying to open her purse, Mademoiselle drops a bunch of coins and a man in a yellow suit helps her pick them up, saying that Mr. de Winter isn’t worth sitting near, anyway. That was, of course, Mr. de Winter, and that meeting, along with Mrs. Van Hopper coming down with a weeklong illness, allows Mademoiselle to become the new Mrs. de Winter!
After their honeymoon, Mr. and Mrs. de Winter retire to the extravagant grounds of Manderley, where the late Mrs. de Winter–the namesake of the movie, Rebecca–fills every corner. If I was judging this movie on looks alone, seeing cursive R’s on every handkerchief, tapestry, hairbrush, and letter would be pretty chilling; even as the new Mrs. de Winter takes over the title of lady of the house, Rebecca still lingers in all aspects. Still, her name can’t be brought up without Max de Winter losing his cool. It’s like Rebecca is there, but not, an unmentionable shadow hidden in plain sight.
But, see, when I hear that Mrs. de Winter is haunted by Rebecca, I kind of expected more actual haunting. Sure, there’s the scene with the red dress chase, and the creepy dreams, but I wasn’t scared. The scariest and best performance came from housekeeper and old friend of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). If anyone is haunting this place, it’s Danvers, who lurks in the dark with an eternal almost-smirk on her face. In keeping Rebecca’s emory alive, Danvers goes out of her way to make Mrs. de Winter’s life miserable and remind her that, without Max. she has nothing; if she is divorced, she will never be able to remarry; and if she stays, she will only suffer.
Of course, Rebecca is not as perfect as many of the folks at Manderley make her out to be, as she regularly has affairs with other men in the boathouse. But Max, it is revealed, can’t leave her because of “what it would do to their name.” And, instead of just getting his own mistress(es), he gets angrier and angrier. When Rebecca comes home from London one day and tells Max that, if she were pregnant, he would have no proof that the child wasn’t his, Max gets real mad (not at the infidelity, it seems, but at the fact that a child who would be inheriting his fortune and living under his care wouldn’t be his). So, when Rebecca (according to Max’s account) tells him to shoot her, he does, and then puts her on a damaged boat to seem like a suicide or hide the evidence.
Okay, cool. That’s awful, right? Mrs. de Winter can definitely see that it’s awful to kill your spouse just because they’re taunting you, right? No. No, she can’t.
Now, I haven’t read the book yet, nor have I seen the Hitchcock film, but my biggest pet peeve with this film is the relationship of the de Winters. It’s probably obvious to viewers that Max could be lying, and that, no matter what, he’s been ignoring Mrs. de Winter and treating her like garbage since they got to Manderley (plus he, like, proposed marriage to a young girl with no family when her only other choice was to go to America and never see her again, and this was after he did ~intimate~ things with her on the beach–IN THE 1930S–so what choice did she really have?)
But every bit of this film makes Mrs. de Winter accept him and love him. She fights for him, against Danvers and the police, with a will and independence that betrays her timid nature when dealing with Max. That could have been a great play between what control does to a woman and the lengths she’ll go for the person controlling her, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s played like a genuine love story. The tone is more criminal mystery than marital horror, and it’s not a good take, in my opinion. Any semblance of a problem with the de Winters is smushed under their lovey-dovey affection and happiness. The movie sees–or rather, shows–nothing wrong with Mrs. de Winter defending Max even after knowing the truth about Rebecca.
So, yeah, I didn’t enjoy it. The gothic ambience is a difficult one to pin down, especially if you limit the story to something so linear and narrative; in the face of gothic retellings like The Haunting series and even Phantom of the Opera, this version of Rebecca falls short of keeping things tense, mysterious, and dark. The first half of the movie is about Mrs. de Winter being sort of sad but lively and try-hardy, and the second half is a crime drama/love story. Where is the real space for Rebecca? She practically has to claw her way into the tiny spaces of the movie because the de Winters are too busy playing other genres.
Good effort, I guess.