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Netflix and director Ben Wheatley collaborate to try and erase Alfred Hitchcock’s stone cold classic “Rebecca” from everyone’s mind. While most cinephiles would say that it’s a career mistake to attempt to remake any of Alfred Hitchcock’s classics. Wheatley is up to the task and is mostly successful in crafting an enticing, glossy, romantic psychological thriller that manages to stand all on its own. Wheatley’s production values are visually ravishing from start to finish, which is what keeps the performances mostly overshadowed. Two of those performances are from Hollywood’s prettiest actors Lily James and Armie Hammer who take over the lead roles from Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The bright period costumes and sets are incredible, while the gorgeous coastal vistas and landscapes are intoxicating. The costumers, production designers, set decorators and art directors clearly put in a lot of overtime. While the script adds some intrigue, what Hitchcock was the master at was mystery and suspense. Instead what we get here is a mystery that isn’t all that mysterious, which is the films biggest downer. It’s still a great adaptation and the perfect film for a late night stream, joined by your significant other and a bottle of wine. It’s one of my favorites of the year.
Any true cinephile would say that it would be a career mistake to attempt to remake any of Alfred Hitchcock’s classics. The obvious example is director Gus Van Sant’s bizarre shot-for-shot “Psycho” remake with Vince Vaughn. However, while it’s against all that is holy to try and duplicate the master of suspense, it may not be entirely impossible to recreate at least a little bit of magic.
In the latest film from director Ben Wheatley (High Rise, Free Fire), the filmmaker tries to take on Hitchcock’s stone cold classic “Rebecca”. It was the only Hitchcock film to win best picture at the Academy Awards in 1940. The dark, brittle drama won against best picture nominees “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Philadelphia Story” and Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”.
But Hitchcock’s film nor any adaption, wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for author Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel of the same name. Besides Hitchcock’s version, there have been two BBC adaptations, a musical and even an opera, among various other reworkings. “Rebecca” works in the two blends of romance and the dark psychological thriller genres. The two have always made for a perfect combination on screen. Ben Wheatley, is a director who has been better than most at blending genres to create unique and original concoctions, he attempts to do so again with his adaptation of “Rebecca”.
While Hitchcock’s starred the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, it is easily considered by many to be one of the best of its kind. In the latest version by Wheatley he goes on record saying this is not a remake of Hitchcock’s film and that’s a smart move on his part, because why would you want to remake one of the best movies ever made by one of the greatest directors of all time? Instead he makes his adaptation slightly closer to Maurier’s novel.
Wheatley still maintains that haunting atmosphere of Hitchcock’s film, with a greater emphasis on the title character and how that impacts another woman who dares try to fill her shoes. But Wheatley has crafted an enticing, glossy romance thriller that Wheatley decides to leave out his usual trademark style and still give us a remake that manages to stand all on its own.
Lily James (“Cinderella”) is a young woman who works for a spoiled and arrogant Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who finds herself pursued romantically by the handsome and wealthy Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer “The Lone Ranger”). The two fall desperately in love, and he asks for her hand in marriage. Once he brings her back to his home, the stunning family estate Mandalay (a place that is like a dour version of Downton Abbey). The young bride finds that she lives in the shadow of his previous wife, Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas “The Horse Whisperer”), who runs the household, appears to have a deep resentment for the young woman. Soon, a mystery unravels as to what happened to his first wife, the one whose presence lingers in every inch of the house.
Wheatley’s production values are visually ravishing from start to finish, which is what keeps the performances mostly overshadowed. Kristin Scott Thomas, attempts to humanize one of the juiciest villains in 20th-century literature, by keeping away from camping it up that causes her to feel like a damp match. Lily James again radiates the screen but seems to play the character the same way throughout, even though her character should blossom to a stand by her man warrior woman. Armie Hammer looking dapper and handsome, doesn’t quite nail the tormented-widower aspect (but to be fair, neither did Laurence Olivier).
Wheatley’s decision to move the setting from sunny France to gloomy England signals a shift in it’s gears. Here Wheatley pushes the movie into a slight gothic horror territory, with a psychological romance thriller. But he gives us one more pendulum swing, in the final third act when the movie suddenly becomes a slight courtroom drama. With the help of cinematographer Laurie Rose, Wheatley paints a lush and beautiful story that is the backdrop for the romantic mystery. The bright period costumes and sets are incredible, while the gorgeous coastal vistas and landscapes are intoxicating. The costumers, production designers, set decorators and art directors clearly put in overtime. The script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse adds some intrigue, but what Hitchcock was the master of; was of mystery and suspense. What we get here is a mystery that isn’t all that mysterious, which is the films biggest downer.
Wheatley took a chance by remaking a beloved novel and classic Hitchcock mystery. It’s the legacy of Hitchcock’s movie that Wheatley has to contend with the most and he does so by moving out of his usual comfort zone. It’s exciting to see Wheatley explore something so unexpected and effortlessly romance fueled. Having the opening sweep of courtship and passion, all vividly shot, just shows Wheatley could pull off a straight romance if he chose to. While the material doesn’t rise to the level of what came before, there’s more than enough here to enjoy and even though I wish Wheatley threw in a bit more mystery to the story. It’s actually a great adaptation and the perfect film for a late night stream, joined by your significant other and a bottle of wine. It’s one of my favorites of the year.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)