Film & Television

Netflix Revisits Manderley in New Film Rebecca

Kristin Scott Thomas is two years older than I am. I know; I checked. An accomplished international actress, in my mind she’ll always be the icily beautiful princess of sarcasm, secretly in love with feckless protagonist Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. She’s been the leading lady to onscreen lovers ranging from Prince to Ralph Fiennes to Robert Redford.

And now she’s … Mrs. Danvers?

I feel just like I did when Room with a View’s diminutive and petulant heroine Helena Bonham Carter suddenly started playing crones like Miss Havisham, Mrs. Lovett, and Bellatrix Lestrange. 

How did these Hollywood ingenues grow so old when I haven’t aged at all? It’s a mystery. And so is the new Netflix adaptation of Dame Daphne du Maurier’s gothic masterpiece Rebecca. There’s the mystery of what really happened to the eponymous first Mrs. de Winter. And then there’s the mystery of why Netflix and director Ben Wheatley felt the need to make it at all.

The story will be familiar even to those who’ve never read the book. A shy young woman is swept off her feet (and rescued from her dreary life as a lady’s companion in the south of France) by a wealthy older widower, Maxim de Winter. He brings her to Manderley, his magnificent ancestral estate, where she is tormented by her suddenly brooding husband, thoughts of his beautiful dead wife, and the late Rebecca’s still faithful housekeeper, the demented Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter (tellingly, the novel never gives her a name of her own) stumbles as the lady of the house even as she stumbles into clues about her predecessor’s demise. After a tense court case is resolved, the de Winters seem to have a chance at a happy ending at last, only to find that Rebecca gets the last word, even from the grave.

Rebecca was written in 1938, has never been out of print, and has been translated into 18 languages. In the BBC’s 2003 “Big Read” survey, it came in at number 14 on the list of England’s “best loved novels.” Although du Maurier wrote 16 other books, as well as plays and short fiction, Rebecca was and remains her most popular work. Over the years, it’s been adapted for radio (by Orson Welles), for the stage several times, for television, and as an opera. 

The most famous Rebecca though is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, which won the prolific director his first and only Academy Award for Best Picture.

Hitchcock’s Rebecca starred Sir Lawrence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as his bride, and the iconic Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. Olivier was appropriately British, brooding and aristocratic. Fontaine was lovely to look at, but a jittery mess of anxiety even before she arrives at the film’s sprawling haunted mansion. And Anderson delivered a role that was just barely this side of supernatural horror. Maliciously planting the idea of suicide in the mind of her new mistress, her eyebrows alone deserved an Oscar. Interestingly, although Rebecca earned a statuette for Best Cinematography along with Best Picture, none of the leading actors, all of whom were nominated, won.

The film holds up remarkably well today, although its melodramatic soundtrack, fastidious dialogue, and overabundant use of shadows are more typical of Hollywood’s golden age (and Hitchcock’s work, specifically) than the realism we expect now. Whether we roll our eyes at its dated filmic conventions or not, the movie is inarguably a classic. Fontaine’s heroine is a “little fool” as Olivier fondly calls her, but we root for her anyway.

 

This being 2020 (although the story is set in the late 1930s), Wheatley chooses to make his Mrs. de Winter a more capable young woman. So, Lily James, best known for crowd-pleasers Downton Abbey and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is awkward and young, but knows her own mind. In order to steal away with Maxim, she slyly lies to her employer Mrs. Van Hopper (a delicious but too brief performance by Ann Dowd of The Handmaid’s Tale). Her summer romance isn’t nearly as chaste as that depicted onscreen in 1940. And, once she gets to Manderley, she steels herself on more than one occasion to confront Mrs. Danvers (although her naïve, forthright approach is certainly no match for the older woman’s devious mind).

Perhaps most significantly, Wheatley, and screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, give Mrs. de Winter a (very minor) active role in solving the story’s ultimate whodunnit and the enigma of the woman Rebecca. In Hitchcock’s film, Fontaine sits loyally by Olivier’s side through trial and investigation, but doesn’t get to do much else.

James is winning in the role; over the past few years she’s proven herself a versatile and endearing actress. (Over the last few weeks, she’s made a name for herself in the tabloids, apparently canoodling in Rome with a married costar.) And, she’s well-matched by the new movie’s Mr. de Winter, Armie Hammer (On the Basis of Sex). He’s not as suave as Olivier but far earthier and more human. The romantic chemistry between the two leads is believable, whether they’re “meeting cute” at a resort in Monte Carlo, enjoying a driving honeymoon through Europe, or rebuilding their lives together at the movie’s end. While they’re at Manderley, however, Maxim becomes moody and preoccupied. Hammer’s “famous temper” never quite rises to the level of Olivier’s, but the dejection James’s character feels when he withdraws his affection is palpable. 

Then again, it would be awkward to make love to your new wife under the all-knowing, always-watching gaze of Scott Thomas’s Mrs. Danvers. I wondered earlier why a remake of Rebecca was necessary. What exactly would the merits of the new version be? The scenery, both along the sparkling Riviera and the rugged English coast, is breathtaking, brightly jewel-toned in a way that the 1940 black and white film can’t match. The new second Mrs. de Winter is a more competent and feminist heroine than the nervous little mouse of the earlier version. (Just count how many times she appears in pants rather than a skirt or dress.) And, gorgeous period dramas will always find an enthusiastic audience. Never more so than now, when so many of us are at home, on the couch, night after night after night. 

But, whether it was a deliberate choice or a happy coincidence, I think the new Rebecca’s raison d’etre is actually Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.

In many ways, Wheatley’s version pales in comparison to Hitchcock’s. But, Scott Thomas’s performance is sublime. With a rigid spine and clipped accent, she insults the new Mrs. de Winter almost immediately. “I’ve never been in a house this big,” the bride confides. “Oh,” Mrs. Danvers retorts without missing a beat, “I’m sorry, I thought you’d been a lady’s maid.” She is irresistibly evil one minute: “She’s still here,” she hisses, “We feel her. I wonder what she’s thinking about you? Taking her husband, using her name.” She’s seemingly human the next: “You never asked for my help,” she pouts when the new mistress threatens to fire her. Mrs. Danvers is a delicious role and Scott Thomas doesn’t hesitate to sink her teeth into it. 

If her role in Rebecca is a hint of things to come (she has five new projects announced or in pre-production), fans of Scott Thomas needn’t mourn her having outgrown young romantic leads. 

Many an actor will tell you that it’s far more fun to play a villain than an ingenue. And, it’s certainly more fun to watch!

Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is available to watch on YouTube.

Rebecca (2020), directed by Ben Wheatley, is available to stream on Netflix.

 

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