Director Ben Wheatley (Free Fire) takes on the monumental task of remaking Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the 1940 Best Picture Oscar winner from Alfred Hitchcock. While the acting and direction are supreme, even with three pairs of feet, screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse do not manage to fill the large shoes left for them.
Widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) is vacationing in Europe, and after a whirlwind romance, he takes a suffering lady’s companion (Lily James) as the new Mrs. de Winter. He sweeps her off to his estate, Manderley. Once there, the new bride finds herself struggling to fit into her newly elevated life, frequently thwarted by head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Her position is complicated by the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, and constant feelings and reminders that she can never live up to her legacy. It isn’t long before she discovers that things are not what they seem to be, and possibly never were.
The script is decent when it sticks to the source material. However, it just does not translate well once filmed. The camera work is lovely, with incredible atmospheric shots, but the scenes frequently seem cut short. Whether this is direction, editing, or a product of how the script reads is not clear, but it happens often enough that it seems to be the latter. This, combined with the changes that seem intent on clearing up and embellishing any mystery left by this mystery story, almost ruins the film. Any viewer that prefers not to have their hand held is likely to be disappointed.
What saves Rebecca is the beauty of the sets, accurately mood-rendering lighting, and costuming that draws the audience into the period. The final salvation is the exceptional performances by all three leads. Wheatley meshed well with his performers’ skills, making the most of their abilities. Both Armie Hammer and Lily James perform admirably, especially as the plot deepens and both characters become more distraught. But the greatest strengths of the film stand on how deliciously dislikable Kristen Scott Thomas makes Mrs. Danvers. Her every movement, and even the tiniest show of emotion through a facial tic, is calculated and precise.
Rebecca has terrific acting and direction and sweeping vistas as settings. Despite these assets, dreaming of Manderley once again after eighty years is probably unnecessary.