Rebecca returns to Manderlay, but no one’s home

Ben Wheatley’s for-hire adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance is beautifully dressed, but its characters are closed books.

27 October 2020

By Tony Rayns

Sight and Sound

▶︎ Rebecca is in UK cinemas and on Netflix.

It’s 80 years since Alfred Hitchcock filmed Daphne du Maurier’s novel for David Selznick – and, incidentally, found himself chafing under the control of a hands-on producer for the first time in his life. By his own account, Ben Wheatley came to this film for Working Title because he was discussing another project with the company when they offered him Jane Goldman’s script.

As he told S&S, Wheatley saw no point in remaking Hitchcock’s film and took on the project on the basis that it was a new adaptation of the novel. But he doesn’t fully address the underlying question: what is the need or relevance in 2020 for a fresh take on du Maurier’s original? The film provides polished, impersonal entertainment with distinct moments of pleasure, but there’s no real attempt at interpretation of the book, let alone reinterpretation. A few shifts in emphasis aside, this is very much the tale of a rich landowner who hated his dead first wife taking an ingenuous new bride – just as Hitchcock filmed it.

Du Maurier certainly provided plenty to interpret. The novel centres on three women, all in some sense blank slates. The late Rebecca – the book’s off-stage heroine, in some proto-feminist readings – was, we learn, a faithless wife and committed sensualist who revelled in her status as a grande dame and cruelly trampled on her husband’s feelings. It’s implied that she had affairs with both men and women, and the one thing we know for sure about her housekeeper Mrs Danvers is that she adored her mistress.

Lily James as Rebecca and Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (2020)

The unnamed young woman who narrates the story and soon becomes the second Mrs de Winter is disdained by her coarse first employer, the American Mrs Van Hopper, for her lack of breeding and savoir faire (she’s an orphan, a real blank slate); the core of the narrative is her fight-back against intimidation, presented as a somewhat belated coming-of-age.

Maxim de Winter himself is equally blank: we can see that he’s drawn to his second wife by her youth, inexperience and spontaneity (there’s a much greater age difference in the novel than in this new script, which allows Wheatley to sidestep any implication of paedophile lust), but it’s unclear what he hopes or expects when he brings this unformed girl back to Manderley.

Rebecca (2020)

Wheatley is content to leave nearly all this blankness intact in his film: backstories and motives go unimagined, the psychosexual pathologies remain opaque, and all attention is lavished on clever costuming and production design to make the characters at some level believable. It’s intriguing to imagine what the Fassbinder of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha would have made of the story; unlikely he would have thought visualising one of the young heroine’s nightmares (being swallowed up by the floor in Manderley) worth the passing frisson. Wheatley has always been a plot-driven director, not especially thoughtful about his characters, but movies like Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) relished pulling narrative surprises, Free Fire (2016) took delight in breaking the rules of orthodox editing, and his adaptation of High-Rise (2015) out-Ballarded the author in its three-dimensional-chess approach to the narrow line between order and anarchy. Given that track-record, his Rebecca is disappointingly conventional.

That said, there are pleasures, primarily visual, and no weak links in the cast. The Riviera scenes at the start are breezily shot and edited with an eye for zippy elisions; the mansion Manderley is visualised as a mass of accretions from centuries past, with no two rooms or corridors precisely matching, giving it more of a backstory than any of the characters has. The primacy of the work with colour and design suggests that Wheatley (like Hitchcock, ironically) is yet another British director seduced by a Hollywood-style budget and the visual canvas it buys.

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