Was Rebecca the Gone Girl of its Day?

We never learn the first name of the second Mrs. DeWinter. Yet we are supposed to enter this story through her. Plucked from her obscurity as a family-less traveling companion to a rich eccentric by the widowed Maxim DeWinter, our young (and seemingly innocent) protagonist is thrust into high society and the mystery surrounding the first Mrs. DeWinter’s death.

It is the first Mrs. DeWinter, of the film’s title, who haunts the film and the rest of the characters, but not in the traditional ghostly way. Rebecca is a classic tale known to many by way of the source novel from Daphne Du Maurier and the iconic Oscar-winning Hitchcock film from the 1940s.

It would be unfair to judge this new adaptation from Ben Wheatley against the Hitchcock masterpiece, so applying a modern lens as a viewer helps. Through learning of Rebecca’s transgressions and those caught up in her drama, the story morphs into another “loathsome rich people doing horrible things to each other” psychological thriller. It’s not that different from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in that regard, except for its throwback gothic melodrama vibe, which is oddly muted here by mostly bright and cheery cinematography of naturally gorgeous environs.

There are a lot of odd things about the film: the sometimes-shoddy editing, the Clint Mansell score that starts out poorly but evolves into something good as the film progresses through the suspenseful notes, Armie Hammer’s stilted performance, Kristin Scott Thomas’ subdued turn as the conniving Mrs. Danvers, the flat dialogue.

But there are plenty of good things here as well. Lily James, against my modest expectations, does a nice job with the second Mrs. DeWinter’s arc from meek outsider to tiger-wife, though that coda at the end is rather lame. The film is beautiful to look at with its lush sets, costumes, and natural scenery…that sumptuous Monte Carlo coastline, those jagged and brutal British cliffs. Individually there are some great shots. And the secondary characters are played with the appropriate melodramatic style that seesaws from British stiff-upper lip to over-the-top cheeky.

This 2020 version of Rebecca is hardly the train wreck some might expect. It’s leagues ahead of the painfully dreadful remakes of Psycho and Brighton Rock, but it does still leave you feeling, “Why?”

Well, if you go in not expecting much, it’s still an entertaining way to pass two hours in our entertainment starved pandemic era.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

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