It takes some nerve to reimagine a movie based on the same source material that spawned Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar best-picture winner 80 years ago. Ben Wheatley, however, is a filmmaker with no lack of gumption.
The director’s “Rebecca” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; streaming Oct. 21 on Netflix), the latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic 1938 novel, is a dreamy homage to old-school Hollywood as well as a haunting, female-driven psychological thriller with deep mystery and satisfying twists (especially for those who’ve missed the many versions of the past several decades).
Lily James stars as a naive young British woman working as an assistant in 1930s Monte Carlo who meets the wealthy and dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Sparks fly – over oysters and scenic car rides – between the widowed Maxim and his innocent new love, though he’s reticent to reveal any details about the recent death of his wife Rebecca. The courtship moves quickly, they get married and the new Mrs. de Winter moves into Maxim’s palatial estate, the world-renowned Manderley.
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She receives an instantly chilly reception from the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (a wonderfully menacing Kristin Scott Thomas), yet even worse is that her husband’s late spouse might as well still be living there. Secret rooms remain untouched, various objects bedecked with an elegant “R” can be found throughout the house, and Mrs. de Winter maddeningly cannot escape her predecessor’s presence.
Mrs. Danvers’ constant belittling comments and gestures don’t help – she frequently tells Mrs. de Winter that she’s incapable of being the lady of the house – nor does the fact that the increasingly erratic Maxim is obviously keeping secrets from his new bride.
Written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, this new “Rebecca” leans heavily into the power struggle between its three main women – and just because Rebecca isn’t there doesn’t mean she’s any less of a paramount persona. James and Scott Thomas are game foes, and their dynamic is as key as the one between James and Hammer. The two leads do a solid job tracking the relationship as it evolves from new love to a more complicated marriage as Wheatley slowly reveals important narrative pieces.
Juggling genres is a hallmark of Wheatley’s filmography, and while “Rebecca” doesn’t feel as original as his other films, like the horror/crime drama “Kill List” or dystopian thriller “High-Rise,” the British director’s update is a well-crafted affair that feels different enough for modern eyes from Hitchcock’s 1940 take with Laurence Oliver and Joan Fontaine.
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Wheatley contrasts the lush outside European vistas, where his main characters fall hard for each other, against the nightmarish interiors of Manderley, where things fall apart. And he wastes no time investing you squarely in the characters’ emotional lives, especially James’ famously unnamed heroine. Maybe most of us can’t boast of tooling around Monte Carlo in a vintage vehicle, but romantic jealousy and having to deal with the ghost of your lover’s ex will always be timeless themes in capable hands.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” James says in the beginning, quoting the book’s iconic first line. Depending on your familiarity with all things “Rebecca,” it’s a welcome revisit or a fulfilling first trip.