Rebecca 2020: Where Are the Rhodedendrons?

Hello, everyone! A few weeks ago, I wrote a glowing review about My Cousin Rachel, the perfectly eerie film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name. But as Matthew McConnaughey once brilliantly said, time is a flat circle, what goes up must come down, etc, etc, and thus I find myself writing a snarky review of another du Maurier film adaptation, the dreary 2020 remake of Rebecca. How could it all have gone so wrong?

Hint: it starts with him

I read Rebecca in my senior year of high school, and I remember being entranced by the mood and atmosphere that du Maurier created. Her descriptions evoked such a potent vision of Manderley, and the vision of the enormous old mansion, haunted by the ghost of the passionate Rebecca, kept me hooked with every turn of the page. The original novel was beautifully written, but it also had a suspenseful mystery at its core. The true motivations of the characters remained a secret until the book’s final pages, yet even though a part of their true natures was always kept hidden, the main characters never felt underbaked.

Many a book-to-film adaptation could blame its failures in these areas on the difficulty of translating the page to the screen, but Rebecca can’t rely on that crutch. Hitchcock’s original adaptation, filmed in 1940 and starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim and Joan Fontaine as the nameless narrator, proved with its Best Picture win that it is possible to make a great film out of Rebecca, if one is up to the task. Ben Wheatley, director of the 2020 version, clearly wasn’t. And looking at his filmography, which is all horror movies, one had to wonder, who chose him to make this? Because yes, Rebecca is a “ghost story,” but it’s not a horror movie. Perhaps that was their first mistake.

The movie starts off of as the novel does, with the narrator saying the iconic line: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Then we are thrust into the “love story” that comprises Maxim and the narrator’s first meeting in sun-soaked Monte Carlo. The movie is good at following the plot of the novel to a “t,” while simultaneously missing its mood and tone.

One of the main problems is the casting. Armie Hammer is completely wrong for Maxim de Winter. In the novel, Maxim is an older widower, with the type of cold reserve that comes from spending ones whole life as a British aristocrat. The actors that come to mind are Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, but without the humor, or even Henry Cavill, who can definitely pull off the dark haired, icy cold Britishness required for the part. Armie Hammer is a capable actor, but he is not suited for the part. He looks like too much of a rich playboy, and even when he tries to be cold, he just comes off as pouty. Without his menacing mystique, the film lacks its narrative oomph, especially in the most essential parts, where the “big reveal” lands with more of a whisper than a bang.

As the naive narrator, Lily James has a role that demands little from her besides big, curious eyes and frightened gasps. I think she plays her part serviceably well, but the lack of chemistry between her and Hammer is noticeable. For what’s supposed to be a grand love story, there is nary a spark between the two leads, though the golden lighting does a lot of heavy lifting in an attempt to trick the audience into believing such a romance exists.

Because of the lack of chemistry and the miscasting, the first third of the movie chugs along at an intolerably slow pace. It’s not until we get to Manderley that things start to pick up, and that’s only because of the incredible Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. With her crimson lipstick and severe updo, she exudes the sense of rigid, upper-crust menace that Armie Hammer so painfully lacks. Finally, there is someone to add mystery and suspense to a film that is supposed to be a suspenseful mystery!

But even with Kristin Scott Thomas lurking and plotting, there is just so much missing from the rest of this movie.

First, where are the rhododendrons? In the novel, the narrator spends a lot of time describing these flowers, specifically how they were “slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic.” The rhododendrons symbolize the overpowering sense of death that hangs over Manderley, as well as Rebecca’s presence still lingering in the halls. But a movie as dense as this has no time for symbols, so instead of blood-red rhodedendrons, we get a single dream about vines (?) and a lot of mirrors. Not good enough!

Second, there is absolutely no suspense. The whole novel revolves around the dark secret of Rebecca’s sudden death, and the narrator’s paranoid fear that Maxim is still in love with his deceased wife. As readers, we see everything from the narrator’s point of view, so with each glimpse at that dark secret, the tension grows, until finally we get the big reveal at the novel’s climax. Daphne du Maurier knew how to write suspense, and even though all this movie had to do was follow her guidelines, they failed to replicate even an iota of that suspense. I kid you not, when Maxim finally revealed the truth of Rebecca’s death, my friends and I said, “that’s it?” It should be a crime to reveal such a significant plot point with such little fanfare. They might as well have been talking about afternoon tea for the amount of suspense in that scene.

Third, the movie makes no attempt to examine the deeper themes of the novel. Instead of examining Maxim’s desire to control the naive young narrator by hiding his past, restricting relevant information, and emotionally neglecting her, the movie explains this abusive behavior away as a consequence of the trauma he experienced after Rebecca’s death. Instead of questioning the gender roles at play in Maxim and Rebecca’s tumultuous relationship, and the events leading up to her death, the movie feels perfectly fine with keeping Rebecca as the villain, and Maxim as the tortured romantic hero. It’s a shallow adaptation of a much deeper book, and the kind of film that prefers to have an easy ending instead of a faithful one.

Final consensus: The 2020 adaptation of Rebecca is like an impression of the novel, one that captures the sparsest outlines of the original, and none of its depths. Apart from the brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, the casting is off and there is no mystery or suspense. If there is anyone being introduced to Rebecca through this film, they’ll probably come away with a far different idea of it than what du Maurier intended. I hope they’ll give the original novel a try, or even the 1940 film, because at least that one knew what it was doing.

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