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Netflix’s ‘Rebecca’ is a pale specter of Hitchcock’s original film

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 22, 2020

By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

“Rebecca,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of the novel by Daphne du Maurier, is one of the greatest, most influential movies ever made. A masterwork of style, tone and technical prowess, the gothic tale of obsession and suspense fused the kind of lush romance associated with “women’s pictures” of the era with the subversive shadowplay of film noir.

A textbook example of great direction (Hitchcock edited the movie “in camera,” judiciously choosing his shots and setups to prevent producer David O. Selznick from fiddling with it in the cutting room) and magnificent performances, “Rebecca” is a one-movie film school, a gemlike artifact of cinematic perfection.

Which makes it all the more curious that anyone would think it needed remaking. Netflix’s opulent but strangely lifeless “Rebecca” – starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas in roles that will forever belong to Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson – follows du Maurier’s narrative more faithfully. And director Ben Wheatley, known for kinetic, stylized exercises such as “High-Rise” and “Free Fire,” does his best to bring carnal naturalism and color to a story that Hitchcock portrayed in icier chiaroscuro.

But it turns out Hitchcock’s instincts were more in tune with material that dealt with twinning, sexual competition and necrophilic obsession: Where his “Rebecca” exerted mesmerizing power by way of its marmoreal beauty and creepy psychodynamics, Wheatley’s is simply a plotty, garden-variety melodrama.

Admittedly, this iteration of “Rebecca” is easy on the eyes. When the movie opens, James’ character – still unnamed after all these years – is working as a lady’s companion to the social-climbing Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who is vacationing in Monte Carlo. They meet an attractive widower named Maxim de Winter (Hammer) at their hotel, and after Mrs. Van Hopper is felled by illness, he and James’ character begin a courtship against the sunny backdrop of the French Riviera.

When they marry, Max takes the second Mrs. de Winter to Manderley, his family estate on the stormy English coast, where his first wife, Rebecca, held court as a legendary beauty, hostess and chatelaine. What ensues is a supernatural game of cat and mouse, as Mrs. de Winter competes with the ghost of her husband’s first wife, egged on by the wily Mrs. Danvers, played by Scott Thomas with the sang-froid of a seasoned gaslighter.

The genius of “Rebecca” is how it keeps the audience guessing about what’s real and imagined, especially when it concerns the title character; whereas Olivier’s Max played into that ambiguity, Hammer’s bland handsomeness can’t project the menace to keep his new bride off balance.

For her part, James overplays the trembling, doe-like naivete of the innocent ingénue. By the time the second Mrs. de Winter takes matters into her own hands, the transformation is perfunctory.

Still, that pivot presents an excellent chance to upend the audience’s expectations and allegiances – a development that Hitchcock elided by tweaking a crucial plot point but one that Wheatley never quite exploits. “Rebecca” is nice to look at, inoffensive, competently executed and utterly unnecessary when once it was so much more.

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