Movie Review: Kristin Scott Thomas’ Sinister Performance is Not Enough to Save ‘Rebecca’
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Joe Shrapnel, Jane Goldman, Anna Waterhouse
Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas
Synopsis: A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.
We seem to find ourselves in an endless loop of remakes and reboots. And while some are decently made, to the point where we can find the ounce of good in order to shrug off the fact that the studio didn’t need a remake in the first place, most of these repeats are generic versions of the original. In director Ben Wheatley’s new take on the classic Rebecca, I find myself wondering, did we even need a remake?
Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel serves as the source material for this new take on the gothic horror. Du Maurier is no stranger to the suspense as Rebecca tells the story of a young woman (Lily James) traveling as a companion to a less than cordial woman, Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). On one of their stays in Europe, the young woman meets Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a rich man who is still feeling the sting of his wife’s recent passing. She immediately falls for Maxim, and after a few days by each other’s side, he asks her to be his wife. What begins as blissful nuptials against the beautiful European coasts, is abruptly halted when the young woman moves into Manderley, meets the incredibly creepy Mrs. Danvers, and is haunted by the former Mrs. de Winter. What unfolds is lies, deceit, and whisps of the supernatural.
With works such as The Birds, My Cousin Rachel, and Don’t Look Now, Du Maurier bleeds horror and suspense. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, Hitchcock (the Master of Suspense) layers the horrors throughout the film as it sends the young woman into a whirlwind of events in the Manderley home. However, Wheatley’s adaptation is far from Hitchcock’s brilliance. Now, to be fair, I never expected Wheatley to reach such heights in this go-around. However, the characters that befall this new adaptation are just plain boring.
James plays the young woman who, by the way, never has a first name revealed. So from this point on, I’ll call her the second Mrs. de Winter — as the staff so sarcastically calls her. It’s a rough transition as she tries to acclimate into the life of the house. James does it in typical innocent fashion as she plays the character like a young doe stepping into a den of lions. But as many of you may root for James to create a scene where she’s hauntingly being taken over by the presence of the house — it doesn’t happen. There’s nothing that ties you to the protagonist and the more she is on screen, the more you want her off. James spends the majority of the time blubbering and complaining of her new situation, as she tries to look for answers to the death of Rebecca. An approach to the film that gets old almost immediately. If James spent her whole time crying on screen, Hammer spent his time shirtless. I’m sure many people won’t mind Hammer’s lack of clothing, but it becomes eye-rolling. But that frustrating aspect aside, his overall performance is forced, so much so that I found his domineering Mr. de Winter no scarier than a “spooky” character in a neighborhood haunted house. He fails to wow me, or inject a new feeling of horror into the film. Often times I find his fits of rage towards the second Mrs. de Winter to be a dog who’s all bark and no bite.
All hope for Rebecca isn’t lost as is seen with Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance of Mrs. Danvers. Danvers runs the house like a warden overseeing a prison — keeping a tight ship on the day to day operations. And in that regard, Thomas’ keeps this film running. She’s a conniving character who broods around, lurking in the dark corners of Manderley. Her unwavering loyalty to the deceased Rebecca is a bit creepy in its own right — bordering an obsession. You can decipher the extent of the relationship between Danvers and Rebecca however you see fit. Thomas spits a venomous poison in her interactions with the second Mrs. de Winter. A cold presence in what the second Mrs. de Winter hoped would be a warm atmosphere. Thomas is the highlight of the film — the core from which all horror resonates. But the scenes without her powerful performance makes the rest of Rebecca fall flat.
As Rebecca progresses, the more twist and turns the story takes. But there’s nothing that immediately makes you feel sympathetic to the de Winters situation. Wheatley never flushes out the haunting imagery that flows throughout the house, and by the time you need to take note of the dark presence, you can’t force yourself to feel, well, anything. At that time, I wouldn’t blame you for glancing at the clock wondering when the movie will be over. Wheatley needed to have played with the horror even more than he did. Hitchcock was always limited by the codes of the old days, and now that the codes leave a bit more room for creative expression, Wheatley missed the opportunity to take advantage of Du Maurier’s dark story-telling.
Rebecca has multiple flaws, ones that can certainly prevent you from enjoying this classic tale. It goes without saying that the original is better in nearly every way. However, even with that sentiment aside, Rebecca doesn’t deliver the horrors or suspense that needed to be on display. The thirst for a sinister and mysterious Rebecca is a thirst that is never quenched.