Being the second Hollywood version of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a lot like being the second Mrs de Winter. Ben Wheatley's new take on the 1938 novel has been dogged since its announcement by those claiming it couldn't possibly match up to the Oscar-winning version Alfred Hitchcock made in 1940. To his credit, though, Wheatley shows no signs of being haunted by the ghost of Hitchcock. His Rebecca is vivid, silly, and willing to yell for the cheap seats in a way that Hitchcock's wasn't. It's different, but that's no bad thing.
This time around, Lily James is the naive young woman serving as a paid acquaintance for socialite Mrs Van Hopper (a properly loathsome Ann Dowd) in Monte Carlo, rendered as a primary-coloured fantasy by Wheatley and ace DP Laurie Rose. She bumps into the mustard-coloured suit of eligible bachelor Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), grieving the loss of his seemingly perfect wife, Rebecca. That's certainly the view of his housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who quickly establishes icy hostility towards the new Mrs de Winter when Maxim brings her home as his bride.
The first act of Rebecca leans heavily on cheese, with Clint Mansell's score tinkling its way through sun-baked montages of the new couple fondling each other or rolling in the sand. By the time they arrive at Manderley – accompanied by the folky foreboding of Pentangle song Let No Man Steal Your Thyme – Sarah Greenwood's outstanding production design takes centre stage, crafting a home that is warm and opulent, but somehow also spiky and unwelcoming. Away from the luminous dreamland of “Monte”, Maxim is literally and metaphorically distant from his wife, leaving her at the mercy of Danvers, for whom Rebecca was nothing short of a deity.
This version of Rebecca essentially opts to say the quiet parts of the story out loud. The class tensions are spelled out clearly by Dowd's tyrannical Mrs. Van Hopper and the script introduces a scene in which an elderly member of the de Winter clan openly laughs at the idea of anyone replacing Rebecca. Writing trio Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse could certainly never be accused of subtlety and the desire to keep things moving squanders some of the unruly, Gothic bedlam that ensures the Hitchcock movie still remains fascinating.
There's something a little askew also in the performances. Hammer feels like a logical go-to guy for ultra-hunky bachelor casting, but the darker edges of Mr de Winter are absent from his portrayal for the most part and sit awkwardly when they arrive. James fares slightly better by virtue of the reworked story handing her added agency, while Wheatley regular Sam Riley smarms admirably as the mysterious Jack Favell. Kristin Scott Thomas though is a disappointment, going through the motions as a Danvers who seems to lack the genuine ice-veined evil of Judith Anderson's Oscar-nommed turn in the original.
Wheatley is able to bring a compelling sense of danger to the third act, which is moderately less messy than it was in the Hitchcock. The streamlining doesn't always feel like an improvement, though, and late in the day courtroom scenes provide several actors with the opportunity to go full ham in slightly uncomfortable fashion. A changed ending, too, robs one performer's final moment of the poetic power Hitchcock assigned, in favour of a baffling coda.
There's a lot to love in the 2020 Rebecca, with Wheatley, Goldman and co transposing the material into a crowd-pleasing romance with twists and turns aplenty. However, the macabre sensibility and rapier wit that characterises Wheatley's collaborations with his screenwriter wife Amy Jump is absent and the result is a movie that feels curiously smooth and glossy, without so much as a prickle to draw the audience's blood. But that's not to deny its broad, silly appeal and a beautiful ensemble of performers giving the material their everything – yellow-hued suit jackets and all.
Dir: Ben Wheatley
Scr: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Keeley Hawes, Ann Dowd, Tom Goodman-Hill, Bryony Miller, John Hollingworth, Mark Lewis Jones, Jeff Rawle, Bill Paterson, Jane Lapotaire
Prd: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
DOP: Laurie Rose
Music: Clint Mansell
Run time: 122 minutes
Rebecca is in UK cinemas now and debuts on Netflix from 21st October.