Without a Hitch

Specter of Alfred Hitchcock lingers of Lily James and Armie Hammer in Netflix’s new version of classic ‘Rebecca’

Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer & Kristin Scott Thomas
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Oct. 21 on Netflix

First of all, Lily James isn’t Rebecca.

There isn’t actually a Rebecca in Rebecca, not in the sense, at least, that you expect in movies with someone’s name in the title.

Based on the classic 1938 novel by British writer Daphne du Maurier, this twisty psychodrama is about a pair of young newlyweds who can’t get escape the memory of his former wife, whose toxic presence continues to dominate him—and almost everyone else.

The story has been adapted numerous times over the years for stage, television and screen, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Hitch’s film, his first American project after more than 15 years of making movies in his native England, won him an Oscar for Best Picture, the only Academy Award he’d ever receive. (It received an additional Oscar, for its cinematography, and was nominated for nine others.)

Du Maurier’s tale certainly makes for fertile storytelling fodder: It’s got love and romance, mystery, crime and misdemeanor, and hints of some things so spicy they landed Hitchcock in hot water with the Hollywood morality police.

James, the British actress appeared as Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey and then starred as Disney’s most famous fairytale princess, Cinderella, also takes center stage in this new version. She’s the main character, and also provides the film’s narration, which opens the movie (and the book).

Lily James

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Manderley is the ancestral home of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), the aristocratic widower that James’ character meets on the French Rivera, where the story begins in the mid 1930s. He’s recovering from the untimely death of his young wife; she’s the paid traveling companion of a haughty American tourist (Ann Dowd, of The Handmaid’s Tale).

After a breezy, breathless courtship—with Maxim whisking her up and down the sun-dappled coast of the Mediterranean—he marries her and brings her back to England, to his sprawling countryside estate.

Situated high on a windswept seaside cliff, Manderley is staffed with servants who run the massive manor, supervised by the icy Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). It’s filled with pricey treasures dating back to Henry VIII and the Tudors, and with precious keepsakes of Maxim’s marriage to Rebecca, his former wife, from her handwritten notes and her clothes, to the dark hairs in her hairbrush, still on her nightstand.

It’s impossible for Mrs. de Winter No. 2 to escape the feeling that she’s always being compared to Rebecca, always hearing about how beautiful she was, how perfect she was. She begins to question herself, her looks and her marriage—how can she ever measure up? She starts having nightmares about this woman she’s never seen; Maxim is so troubled, he sleepwalks through his massive house, and around the grounds of his estate.

And what exactly happened to Rebecca? That’s at the dark heart of the story, and anyone who’s read the novel—or seen Hitchcock’s movie—will of course know. But everyone else, well, you’ll have to find out, along with the new Mrs. de Winter, as she explores the shadowy, Gothic hallways and forbidden rooms of Manderley, catches shade from the creepy staff and gradually gets a fuller, more troubling picture about the power that Rebecca continues to wield from beyond the grave.

Hammer and James make an eye-candy couple, but they never generate any sweet heat; it’s hard to understand why they fall in love, much less why they remain that way as the dramatic vice tightens in the movie’s second half. Kristin Scott Thomas, however, is absolutely galvanizing as the devious, duplicitous Mrs. Danvers; she’s a matronly movie monster, and the veteran actress seems to relish the devilish delight of biting into this juicy rotten apple of a role.

Director Ben Wheatley—known for his violent 2016 action flick Free Fire (also with Hammer) and the dystopian drama High Rise, with Tom Hiddleston—seems a bit out of his league here, even while dressing up the screen with gorgeous on-location scenery, lots of dandy-looking Brits with dapper haircuts, and a parade of sumptuous fashion getups.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Mrs. Danvers

But something is missing, something that a more masterful director could have brought to a tale brimming with sexy subtext and wicked, deep-dish character nuance—a director like, say, Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, for instance, knew how to orchestrate Rebecca’s buildup of tension, dread and criminal collusion with consummate craftsmanship and finesse; how to navigate the tale’s simmering undercurrents of twisted, psychosexual manipulation; and just how important it was to build upon its beguiling ambiguity about the shifting sands of good and evil. Stronger direction, especially in a contemporary remake, could have fleshed out the dueling feminist dynamics of its two pivotal characters, Mrs. de Winter No. 1 and No. 2, one of which never seen, but all-powerful, even in death; the other as the star of the story, but invisible in another way—unnamed, other than in relation to the man she marries.  

To get around censors 80 years ago, Hitchcock had to alter some of his movie—specifically its hints of lesbianism, and one character’s “morally objectionable” actions—before it could be released. Hitch certainly knew the dark, subversive power of Rebecca. He’d make two more movies based on books by du Maurier, including The Birds.

This Rebecca too often feels like a pleasant-enough cross between a posh, British period drama and a primetime network crime procedural, maybe like a special episode of CSI: Downton Abbey. It’s pretty, but it plays too polite to have very much punch.

“She’s still here,” Mrs. Danvers says, sadistically taunting the new Mrs. de Winter about the ever-present specter of Rebecca at Manderley. “Do you feel her?”

Ah, the poisonous power of the invisible Rebecca: She’s still here, and so is he—Hitchcock, whose impressive shadow continues to loom over this classic tale, 80 years later, in a movie version he didn’t even make.

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