Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Joe Shrapnel, Jane Goldman, Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd
Do you ever feel as though you’re drowning, sinking into unknown territory? Encased in emotion, overwhelmed by life and its changes, its deceitful twists and turns? The story of Rebecca, originally published as a novel by Daphne du Maurier in 1938, is a tragic tale of living in the shadow of a predecessor, constantly fighting with the self-doubt, paranoia and confusion of lies and truth swimming around one’s head.
The opening sequence of Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca lays the foundations for the film’s powerful tonality and presents a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1940 film. Beginning with a narration from Lily James, matching perfectly with Joan Fontaine’s interpretation from 1940, the overbearing darkness and visions of the sea infer the film’s later events, creating a sense of despair and mystery against James’ warm, soothing voice. This despair is quickly broken by the warmth felt from Monte Carlo, where this story begins. An array of colours and classic 1950s styles emerge from the darkness, engulfing the viewer in a hug from the French Riviera. You can almost smell the cigars and taste the plate of oysters that James’ character devours. It’s iconic and delicious, as if fallen straight from an Art Deco travel poster. Armie Hammer joins Lily James as Maxim de Winter, taking her on the fairy tale holiday romance that most viewers can only dream of. Their blossoming relationship is mirrored in the beautiful use of colour and cinematography, and charmed by James’ hopelessly devoted naivety as the newly married Mrs de Winter.
Arriving back in England, the new Mrs de Winter becomes the Lady of Manderley House and soon unearths a few closeted skeletons. Manderley becomes the cause of an incredible shift in tone and feeling for the rest of Rebecca, possessing the viewer just as it possesses its inhabitants. Lily James triumphs in her role as Mrs de Winter, living in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca. She is the face of modern enchantment, bringing vibrancy to a dismal, stringent household, and continues to be radiant and charismatic even when threatened by Rebecca’s closest confidantes.
Mrs de Winter is drowning in Manderley, sinking under the feeling of not being good enough, not being worthy and not being Rebecca. This is illustrated beautifully by rainy days at Manderley and the inclusion of the treacherous Devon coastline. During scenes where Mrs de Winter feels overwhelmed or in over her head, rain begins to pour at the house or her demise is threatened. After a particularly emotional scene, Mrs de Winter’s in-laws leave Manderley, with her following them out of the front door, seemingly to walk straight into the front pond. It is as though she is being dragged to the water, the rain already drenching her as she walks slowly to her proposed devastation. This is equaled with her frequent return to the Devon cliffside despite her husband urging her to stay away. An unseen force looms over her, compels and calls to her from the depths of the sea, pulling her in and away from Manderley. Even as her character is broken by deceit, anxiety and low self-esteem, Mrs de Winter finds her voice as Lady of the House and stands by her new husband through his grief and secrecy. With this notion, Rebecca is still a traditional tale of ‘standing by your man’ and is almost identical to Hitchcock’s adaptation.
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Kristin Scott Thomas is notably remarkable as the headstrong housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who dotes upon Rebecca even after her passing, encouraging rumours of Rebecca’s infidelity. “Why shouldn’t a woman amuse herself?”, she assures, ridiculing the men in Rebecca’s life and treating her as a saint. Rebecca’s lasting imprint on Manderley haunts the walls, the rooms and the grounds as if she still walks them. When Mr de Winter sleepwalks to the old master bedroom at night, it is as if Rebecca walks within him, taking his steps instead of her own, leading him to the same dreadful fate of lifelong despair and grief.
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel is one of a propelling nature, with a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel, Jane Goldman and Anna Waterhouse that compliments Alfred Hitchcock’s original cinematic work, injecting life back into an eighty-year-old story. Rebecca’s magnificent cast each add their own individual flair to the film, with Lily James shining above all with her refreshing twist on the iconic lead role.