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An empty-headed waste of time

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It’s oddly apropos that Netflix’s Rebecca, about a young woman struggling to live up to the memory of her husband’s first wife, should flounder in the shadow of its own much-admired predecessor. But where the unnamed protagonist of Rebecca finds herself beset by crushing insecurity, the latest screen adaptation bounds ahead with a superficial confidence that it hasn’t earned. 

To be fair to the new Rebecca, it is not technically a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic, as director Ben Wheatley is is quick to point out, but a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name. To be even fairer, even if it were billed as a remake, there’d be nothing wrong with that. Beloved movies get remade and rebooted all the time, and there’s rarely much to be gained by getting overly precious about the source material. 

So perhaps it’s not fair to judge the new Rebecca against the old one, just as it’s not fair to pit the second Mrs. de Winter against the first one. They’re different beasts, even if they fill the same basic purpose. Still, it’s hard to avoid the comparison — not only because the Hitchcock version looms large, but because the new Rebecca has very little to recommend it. 

It’s not sexy, despite its multiple sex scenes, or romantic, despite its groaningly sentimental ending. Nor is it dark, despite the mysterious death at the center of the story. It’s not even particularly pretty, despite the endless procession of pretty people in pretty clothes against pretty scenery. Rebecca looks as flat and forgettable as your average Marvel blockbuster, lacking the richness and texture that Wheatley brought to previous films like High-Rise and A Field in England

Wow, you can feel the lack of chemistry from here.

Wow, you can feel the lack of chemistry from here.

Image: Kerry Brown / Netflix

Mostly, it’s dutiful, with a few extraneous flourishes here and there to let you know the new Rebecca is really trying to stand on its own. These include flash-forwards to events that will happen literally seconds from now, CG-heavy nightmare sequences, and ghostly glimpses of the late Rebecca, forever untouchable in a fluttering silk dress. None of them add up to very much.

Rarely has watching two gorgeous movie stars canoodle on a beach felt so tedious.

The problems begin with its central couple. Lily James is at least serviceable as the naive heroine, if missing the sparkle she brought to Cinderella and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. But Armie Hammer is hopelessly miscast as Maxim de Winter, a wealthy widower who’s described by other characters as a brooding, mercurial, magnetic type. We’ll have to take their word for it, because the Maxim we see on screen seems less like a tortured soul than an empty-headed rich kid sulking over lost car keys. 

Nevertheless, Rebecca must press on with the plot points pre-ordained by du Maurier. So the two meet in Monte Carlo, where he’s gone to gaze at the sea and think about his dead first wife, and where she’s come to serve as a paid companion to an obnoxious society matron (Ann Dowd). They have a whirlwind courtship marked by many scenes of James and Hammer trying and failing to spark any chemistry at all; rarely has watching two gorgeous movie stars canoodle on a beach felt so tedious. Then it’s back to Manderley, his ancestral home, which the second Mrs. de Winter will quickly realize is haunted by Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter — metaphorically, if not literally. 

No movie that features a crisply dressed Kristin Scott Thomas shooting icy glares across the room at some bumbling fool can be said to be entirely devoid of pleasure, and so it is with Rebecca. She’s a rare bright spot as Mrs. Danvers, the officious housekeeper of Manderley, who takes every opportunity to politely eviscerate the new Mrs. de Winter, reminding her that she’ll never live up to the other woman. As in other versions of Rebecca, Danvers’ fixation on her former employer is one of the most intriguing elements of the movie.

Rebecca: Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

Rebecca: Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

Image: Kerry Brown / Netflix

But this Rebecca is too busy building up the love story between Maxim and his new wife to spend much time thinking about poor old Danny. One of the ways this Rebecca does distinguish itself from other versions of the tale is that the new marriage is presented as straightforwardly romantic, rather than toxic or tragic. But it’s not a choice that serves the material well. Gone is all the twisted psychosexual drama of the uneven power dynamics between the Maxim, the second Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, and Danvers. In its place, we get a half-baked female empowerment narrative that reduces our heroine to her role as wife, dismisses Rebecca as a one-dimensional caricature, and and lets Maxim off the hook far too easily.

It’s tempting to suggest that the two hours it’d take to watch Netflix’s Rebecca would be better spent revisiting the classic Rebecca. But just as the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself outmatched by a woman who’s not even alive anymore, the new Rebecca is competing with a movie that’s become nearly impossible to find on streaming. (A little birdy did tell me that bootleg versions can be found on YouTube, and of course you can still buy physical copies of it.) 

This Rebecca may not be as beautiful, as brilliant, as charismatic as the one that came before it, but it’s the one that’s available to us right now. And so we’re left to play the role of Mrs. Danvers, barely suppressing an eyeroll at this inferior replacement, wondering if we weren’t all better off without it.

Rebecca is streaming now on Netflix.

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