3.5 out of 5 stars

It’s 80 years since Alfred Hitchcock made his version of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca, so it’s high time the story was revamped for a modern audience. Director Ben Wheatley does it well, as the Gothic touches are all there, together with the romance. His first film, Down Terrace (2009), was a crime drama that also centred on familial mistrust, marriage, and murder… but set inside a terraced house in Brighton, not a stately home in rugged Cornwall.

Next came Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012), which further showcased Wheatley’s talent for mixing nasty with funny. A Field in England (2013) was a hallucinogenic historical set during the English Civil War, which he followed by guest-directing Doctor Who (2014’s “Deep Breath”, the brilliant intro for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor), but even so he admitted that adapting a beloved novel like Rebecca was a “big responsibility” and perhaps too much of a departure for his fans.  

The screenplay was worked on by three writers—Jane Goldman (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse—and follows the plot of the book rather more than Hitchcock’s film, which needed to adapt to the Hays Code of late-1930s Hollywood.

Lily James narrates the immortal first lines of the novel (“last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”), but this time the entire film is her dream, recounting everything that led to this point…

After a whirlwind romance in glamorous Monte Carlo, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) brings a penniless young bride (Lily James) back to his Cornish ancestral home, Manderley. Ann Dowd is excellent as the obnoxious Mrs Van Hopper, who warns she’ll not be up to the task of being mistress of Manderley, one of the most distinguished country houses in England, and that everyone knows Maxim is still on the rebound from the tragic death of his first wife, Rebecca. 

The meeting between the new Mrs de Winter and the imposing housekeeper Mrs Danvers is almost identical to the Hitchcock classic: Mrs Danvers picks up the glove dropped by her gauche new mistress and returns it in a way that seethes disdain.  Slowly the ghost of Maxim’s first wife starts to come between the newlyweds. Everyone, it seems, loved Rebecca. Maxim was crazy with grief when she died in mysterious circumstances, and Mrs Danvers preserves Rebecca’s room (looking much like the set used in the Hitchcock film) as though she might return at any time. How can this young bride battle for her own identity, her own happiness, against an absent rival who’s everywhere? 

There are plenty of twists and turns and Gothic nightmares—even sleepwalking! The house has an eerie character of its own. There are storms and a sinister murmuration over Manderley, reminiscent of The Birds (1963), the other Du Maurier classic Hitchcock adapted. But it’s more in the tradition of Roger Corman’s Poe films, such as The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), than modern psychological horror, and all the better for it. Rebecca is a love story above all.

Lily James, who played Lady Rose in Downton Abbey and Disney’s live-action Cinderella (2015), shapes up as a much more spirited and proactive heroine than Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s version. And, of course, both are more beautiful and poised from the outset than the novel suggests. Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) makes for a younger Maxim than Laurence Olivier, and looks dashing in a dinner jacket (which he stubbornly wears when everyone else is in costume at the infamous Masque ball). Hammer is the son of a successful businessman and the great-grandson of an oil tycoon, so perhaps he drew upon his own experience of inherited wealth for the role?

Kristen Scott Thomas (Darkest Hour) clearly relishes the part of the sinister Mrs Danvers, who’s so malevolent in her passionate loyalty to Rebecca and brilliantly manipulative of the vulnerable second Mrs de Winter. Even so, she’s more nuanced a character than Hitchcock allowed for, with a sort of twisted moral compass. Ditto the odious Jack Favell (Sam Riley), Rebecca’s ‘cousin’.

Shakespearean actress Jane Lapotaire also makes a memorable cameo appearance as Granny, who asks “who is this child?” when introduced to the heroine and demands to see Rebecca. Keely Hawes (Bodyguard) is also great as sister-in-law Beatrice, who offers sympathy and support to the new Mrs de Winter, even advising a “stiff upper lip” at one stage.

Unlike the Hitchcock film, real locations in the south of France and various British stately homes, plus the scenic coasts of Dorset and Devon (but not Du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, where the novel was set) were used in the film. Manderley itself is a dream like composite house; opulent and filled with servants Downton Abbey-style. The beautiful clothes and cars and settings are all quite sumptuous (Burberry and Chanel are listed in the credits), and the coastal scenery is beautifully shot. The set design seems a labour of love, and the portrait of Maxim’s ancestress that inspires that infamous dress is based on a real work of art—-a portrait of Mrs Hugh Hammersley (1892) by John Singer Sargent.

The atmospheric music is composed by Clint Mansell—formerly of the band Pop Will Eat Itself, who worked on Darren Aronofsky films The Fountain (2006) and Black Swan (2010), amongst others. The traditional song “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”, performed by Pentangle, is particularly effective.

Overall, this is a faithful version that fans of Rebecca will enjoy. As it’s been rated 12 by the BBFC, this gives teenagers a chance to enjoy the classic too.  It may seem slow compared to other modern psychological thrillers, but it’s still a great story well told.  One where we’re drawn into the plot’s twists and turns until we’re accomplices on that journey to Manderley once more,  as the new Mrs De Winter comes of age and declares she needs to save the one thing worth walking through flames for: love. 

UK | 2020 | 121 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Ben Wheatley.
writers: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier).
starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Ben Crompton, Mark Lewis Jones, Jane Lapotaire & Ashleigh Reynolds.