Written by: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Ann Dowd
Marrying someone you have only known for a few days or weeks does not strike huge confidence in the longevity of the entanglement. It does not allow for the proper time to truly get to know someone and the potential skeletons in their closets. Rebecca serves as another warning of this hasty move in a story continually shifting and turning the circumstances around for its lead protagonist.
Working for a horrible boss, Rebecca (Lily James) meets the extremely rich and alluring Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). In their brief time together at a vacation spot, they fall in love and the young woman accepts his proposal of marriage to become the next Mrs. de Winter. Upon arrival at his residence, Manderlay, she discovers the large shoes she needs to fill after the tragic death of the previous Mrs. de Winter.
By virtue of adapting the same source material, this iteration of Rebecca was always going to face comparison to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film of the same name and with exquisite quality. It stands out even more from the legendary director’s filmography with it being the only production of his to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Even on its best day, this 2020 version was never going to compare Hitchcock’s, therefore viewing the different take on this story and inching away from the tension-packed preceding version, it allowed me to find enjoyment in places where the film succeeds.
The story quickly establishes the titular character has no family and has the job of being Mrs. Van Hopper’s (Ann Dowd) companion because of the traveling perks. It’s made clear why accepting Maxim’s proposal made plenty of sense in her eyes. She could either stay in the miserable position of having to attend to Mrs. Van Hopper’s every demand or marry a stunningly attractive man with a large estate where money never is a problem. The time they spend together shows what paradise their life could be but Rebecca’s rude awakening comes in swift fashion when she meets the woman who runs the household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Introducing Mrs. Danvers into the story allows Kristin Scott Thomas to devour the screen with her presence and performance. She presents this stern but efficient character who only gets more intriguing as the story further unravels. Mrs. Danvers loved Maxim’s first wife dearly and accepting a new Mrs. de Winter was never going to be without a rough transition. Rebecca faces her biggest foil with Mrs. Danvers because everything with Maxim felt like perfection until meeting her, representing the reality of marrying into this situation for the young woman. Plenty of baggage and hurt exists at Manderlay and apparently, Rebecca has to discover these things rather than ever being told.
Where this version fails to measure up comes from the casting of Armie Hammer, unfortunately. The man is undeniably handsome but he does not fit the mold for the vibe Maxim needs to present in the story. It becomes evidently clear why Rebecca would be attracted to his offer, but Hammer does not completely sell the other side and he becomes so guarded. It just has Hammer looking pouty for a good stretch of the story. With an industry infamously known for uncomfortably large age gaps in stories, Rebecca calls for it, and yet they could not deliver on this front. Knowing the story beats and how it would go allowed for the rest to play out fine, but the true assessment occurs for someone who has not seen it before. Watching it with my wife confirmed that as the story reaches its end, character decisions do not make sense, particularly from Rebecca, and looking at the presentation overall confirms just that. The emotional connectivity of these characters and the narrative as a whole does not justify the behaviors laid out in the story, which lies solely on Maxim’s presentation. Hammer never fully allows this character to flourish in a manner where Rebecca would make the critical decisions at the end, which is integral to the story.
One aspect nearly everyone who experiences this can agree exudes quality comes with the exquisite production and costume design. Manderlay gets set out to be this luxurious place to reside and it surely did not disappoint with all of the rooms having such a luscious detail and allure. It allows each space to have characteristics that make them either inviting or threatening to the new Mrs. de Winter. The paradisal appeal to Manderlay remains intact throughout and continues to sell why Rebecca should continually put up with the shenanigans of Mrs. Danvers.
So much under the surface gets dug up and presented to the world in this remake of Rebecca, which succeeds in establishing Manderlay along with the mental and emotional duel between the titular character and Mrs. Danvers. It allows for some luscious moments of passion and anger to boil to their complete climax and allows the actors to fully take off with the material. Sprawling and imaginative as one could want in a movie not trying to emulate Hitchock’s masterpiece, which ensures its resounding success.