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'Rebecca' is Beautiful and Empty

Dir. Ben Wheatley—3 Stars

Lily James stars as Mrs. de Winter and Armie Hammer stars as Maxim de Winter in "Rebecca" (2020), directed by Ben Wheatley.
Lily James stars as Mrs. de Winter and Armie Hammer stars as Maxim de Winter in "Rebecca" (2020), directed by Ben Wheatley. By Courtesy of Kerry Brown/Netflix
By Mira S. Alpers, Crimson Staff Writer

“Rebecca," a gothic romantic thriller directed by Ben Wheatley, certainly has big shoes to fill — its source material, a 1938 novel of the same name, was a massive bestseller. Eventually, it inspired a film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock that went on to win Best Picture at the 1941 Oscars. This new adaptation is stunning, stressful, and messy: It delivers beautiful cinematography and psychological thrills, but fails to address the more interesting aspects of the source material.

While serving as a lady’s maid at a French coastal resort in the early 20th century, the film's nameless heroine (Lily James) meets the rich Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower whose wife, the titular Rebecca, recently died under mysterious circumstances. Maxim and our heroine embark on a whirlwind cross-class romance, which leads to their eventual marriage. However, things turn south when the de Winters move to Maxim’s Manderly estate, which is overseen by Mrs. Danvers, a foreboding housekeeper with an almost obsessive loyalty to Rebecca. The new Mrs. de Winter is haunted by the legacy of Rebecca, whose power over the household lingers posthumously.

One area where the film succeeds is its aesthetics. The opening act of the film, with its warm gem-toned color palette and sunny lighting, screams nostalgia and romance. The costumes are especially brilliant, with vibrant shades of pinks, reds and yellows. This wistful visual language is contrasted by brief glimpses of something sinister floating just beneath the surface. Back in her room after her ventures with Maxim, the heroine is cloaked in darkness, the warmth of the previous scenes completely absent. By switching the visual tone, Wheatley builds tension and hints at a lurking darkness just around the corner. When the heroine moves to Manderly, this sinister tone takes over the film, leaving it cold, suffocating, and sterile. The once warm palette is replaced with hollow hues of blues, grays, and blacks. The only shade that remains from the first act is red, which takes on a new severe and unnerving tone as seen in Mrs. Danvers' lipstick and the dress worn by the heroine’s hallucinations of Rebecca.

The performances in “Rebecca,” however, are a mixed bag. Lily James’ Mrs. de Winter and Kristin Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers are both engaging, especially in scenes where they play off of each other. There is a tension between them that borders on sexual, as Danvers attempts to seduce the new Mrs. de Winter into a state of madness, and when the two occupy the screen at the same time, it's impossible to turn away. However, both actresses have a tendency to deliver their lines in a melodramatic fashion that can distract from the film’s stakes. In contrast, Armie Hammer’s Maxim — and his half-hearted British accent — is completely forgettable. Hammer seems to be attempting a Bronte-esque performance, however, he ends up coming off as more off-putting and boring than brooding and intriguing.

Hammer’s performance reveals a greater issue with the film — that it fails to meaningfully explore why the new Mrs. de Winter is so committed to her boring husband. There are moments in the film that seem to be suggesting something interesting about men and the power they hold over women, but Wheatley never fleshes out these themes. There are clearly power differences between Mr and Mrs. de Winter which the film starts to address but never really takes a stance on. The main character only derives her sense of self from her relationship with Maxim and his dead wife, so much so that she doesn’t even have a name. In the final scene of the film, which does not appear in the book, the new Mrs. de Winter explains why she stood by Maxim, quipping about the power of love. This extra scene feels like a massive cop-out and is emblematic of larger narrative issues: Wheatley doesn’t have the courage to delve into the complicated power dynamics between the characters and often chooses instead to explain away the more complex elements of the story — which leads to a sloppy, convoluted conclusion.

“Rebecca” is a visually beautiful film, but it doesn’t say or do anything new. The film is often suspenseful and exciting, but with its uneven performances and failure to address the key tensions between its characters, “Rebecca” ultimately feels like an unnecessary update to a classic.

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