Ben Wheatley, 2020
“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
When Armie Hammer delivered this line in a smouldering whisper, clutching Lily James’s face tenderly in both hands against the lush backdrop of an opulent bedroom which suggested sensuality just as much as James’s tilted head and open mouth did, I knew this adaptation of the classic 1938 novel would be underwhelming.
Comparing this scene directly with the same scene in the book seems petty, but I think the contrast gets to the heart of what this adaptation was lacking. I don’t mind adaptations messing with settings, dialogue, even elements of the plot. But Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca was missing the central element which makes this story so gripping: unshakeable insecurity.
Armie Hammer’s delivery made ‘you little fool’ seem like a risqué term of endearment, but the original was deliberately unnerving, delivered deadpan at the breakfast table. Du Maurier does not even give us access to her narrator’s thoughts at being proposed to, just skips ahead with the dialogue, creating a numb sense of underwhelming and confusion which sows the seeds of the narrator’s insecurity. Even as they discuss plans for the wedding, she is ‘uncertain of myself and of him. Was he still laughing at me, was it all a joke?’
As her mind skips ahead, excitedly, hurriedly painting a portrait of her new life, she imagines Maxim saying “We’re going to be married, we’re very much in love.” Then…
‘In love. He had not said anything about being in love. No time perhaps. It was all so hurried at the breakfast table. Marmalade, and coffee, and that tangerine. No, he had not said anything about being in love. Just that we would be married. Short and definite, very original. Original proposals were much better. More genuine. Not like other people. Not like younger men who talked nonsense probably, not meaning half they said. Not like him the first time, asking Rebecca… I must not think of that.’
This is the first time that the narrator directly compares herself to Rebecca. The proposal is a key scene, the first in which we detect that something is wrong, something is missing. The short, frantic sentences indicate a mind already disturbed by the absence of expected romance. So when Wheatley’s adaptation provides a surfeit of romance in a moment that is supposed to be devoid of it, it misses an opportunity to unsettle the viewer. And as Rebecca is a story designed to unsettle, any move away from that feeling can only weaken the film.
The romanticising of the proposal is symbolic of the romanticising of the entire plotline. A classic gothic thriller has become the common type of period romance which looks very pretty on pinterest boards but lacks that deep emotional quality that keeps you coming back. Armie Hammer’s Maxim wavered uncertainly between loving warmth and melodramatic anger, rather than the closed coolness which made the book’s character so intriguingly unreadable. Similarly, Lily James’s portrayal of the narrator oscillated between meekness and assertion in a way that felt inconsistent and random.
This adaptation was definitely sexed up, another decision in deliberate contrast to the original. In the book, it is strongly hinted that the marriage isn’t consummated until after Maxim confesses, symbolising the couple’s emotional distance and the narrator’s insecurity at not being a ‘proper wife’. By contrast, in the 2020 Rebecca the couple clearly have sex before the proposal in Monte Carlo and are portrayed as physically intimate throughout. As a new line from Mrs Van Hopper suggests, the implication is that the narrator has ‘trapped a man between her legs’ and that perhaps Maxim does not truly love her. This could have created an interesting new dimension to that key feeling of insecurity, but it was not explored at all. Thus, the swapping between cosy kissing by the fire and frosty coastal walks seemed totally inconsistent.
I did enjoy many elements of this film; Kristen Scott Thomas was superb and the detailed exploration of Mrs Danvers’ character was welcome. In general, all the scenes to do with servants were amusing and engaging to watch. A particular stand-out moment was Lily James seated awkwardly and alone at the breakfast table, and a shot of the young footman watching her (directly down the camera lens) and then quickly looking away.
Of course, the sets and cinematography were stunning. And I liked several directing choices, such as the murmurations of starlings symbolising Rebecca’s presence and the light, hopeful music playing as Maxim confesses the truth, conveying the second Mrs de Winter’s relief.
Overall, however, I found this adaptation lacking the tension and creepiness which makes Rebecca an enduring story. The film walked a tightrope between a heady but hollow romance and paying homage to Hitchcock’s classic (most notably in the bedroom scene which was almost identical). It found itself stranded in the middle without justifying its choices. I would definitely add some stills of Lily James in that red dress to my period dramas pinterest board, but I can’t see myself carving out another two hours to rewatch this.