(WARNING: Plot of Daphne Du Maurier’s / Alfred Hitchcock’s / Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca discussed in explicit detail!)
“How dare he?” I hear the folks hissing: “an Alfred Hitchcock classic, and an Oscar Best Picture winner!” Critics haven’t been kind to Ben Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, and who can blame them? It’s as if he’d taken a spray can to La Giaconda and smeared her smile lime green.
Here’s a dirty little secret: I’m not a big fan of Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut feature — the only one to earn that silly little goldplated buttplug in his long illustrious career. It has the middlebrow sensibility of its producer, the even more illustrious David O Selznick, who also won Best Picture with his previous oversized production Gone With the Wind. Selznick was a believer in reasonably faithful adaptations (Gone was basically Margaret Mitchell’s novel word for word, with the racier details slightly scrubbed, projected in glorious technicolor) and when the director turned in an early draft the producer insisted that Hitchcock put aside his “distorted and vulgarized” treatment, and stick to what Du Maurier wrote. “We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca,” he declared; Hitchcock had little choice but to comply.
Have to admit that Hitchcock does manage to work in some magic, particularly in the opening. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” says Joan Fontaine as narrator, her meandering tone matching the camera’s meandering glide down the estate’s overgrown wooded driveway — Selznick was apprehensive about the use of miniatures but it’s exactly that stylized slightly unreal look that helps establish the dreamlike nature of the shot. Bands of light and shadow pass through the forest — clouds across the moon, you think, when it’s likely panels of plywood passed under an overhead spot; your mind has leaped ahead of your awareness to land softly in the intricately constructed, fully realized world of 1938 Cornwall, along the southwestern coast of England.
Wheatley knows he can’t compete with that kind of sorcery, so he doesn’t; his film opens not with woods but water, hair like seaweed streaming sideways in current. Moonlight glimmers through the strands and suddenly the same light is glimmering through leaves, the camera sweeping past trees to fetch up to the entrance of the De Winter estate: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” says Lily James as a figure (hers?) walks through the gates, the sound of screams heard faintly from within, the glow of flames flickering redly from either side; a flurry of images past present future, and our heroine arrives by taxi at a hotel in Monte Carlo.
It’s the entire picture summarized in one shot before settling into the story’s proper beginning, sharpening one’s expectations that Wheatley will take on Du Maurier’s novel with confident effrontery, making the material his own.
Doesn’t happen, or rather doesn’t happen the way we expect. Olivier’s Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier ) was 10 years older than Fontaine’s Mrs. De Winter, and the way his Max handles his freshly wedded wife is the way a father handles his awkward but beloved daughter: with tenderness and a touch of condescension. Armie Hammer is only three years older than Lily James, so the gulf between his Max and his wife is based more on class differences than generational: he’s sophisticated and blindingly rich, she’s naive, prospectless.
Folks object to James: her Mrs. De Winter is too obviously beautiful, too ready to fight back — a prototype feminist just raring to step up and take charge. Fontaine also looks striking — a Hollywood glamorization of Du Maurier’s original concept, a supposedly plain or mousy girl or at least not up to the standards set by the first wife — but the actress had this knack (likely compounded by the fact that her co-star wanted his real-life spouse Vivien Leigh in the role) for playing timid; drop-dead gorgeous, but so shrinking-violet shy she couldn’t believe Laurence Olivier would fall for her. As it turns out Max does (it’s called acting “my dear boy”), and we initially doubt his conviction and believe her insecurities mainly due to Fontaine’s peculiar gift.
James isn’t Fontaine — I don’t fall for her the way I did for Fontaine in her best films* but do think the new girl represents a more believable (as in: less of a doormat) Mrs. De Winter, a more nimble and physically ardent Mrs. De Winter.
And I submit that Wheatley’s casting gambit does pay off, in the crucial moment when James appears at the head of the main staircase wearing dear ancestor Caroline De Winter’s gown — the same gown Rebecca wore on their last grand masquerade. Not (as in Hitchcock) a private moment scored to Franz Waxman’s romantic music, but in front of all the guests, the ball’s very climax, to the sizzle of a lone snare drum. Mrs. De Winter stands at the top of the stairs and the way she’s shot — surrounded by warm candlelight, rich dark tresses replacing a blonde bob…
But how can James do better than Fontaine, one of the classic beauties of Hollywood? It’s because Fontaine in Caroline de Winters’ dress is mainly Fontaine all dressed, the same Fontaine we know and love; James’ however is a less familiar face, and manages a transformation: this is how Max saw his first wife before she died — tall and glorious and wearing a delighted (diabolic?) grin. Through Wheatley’s lens we’re granted a glimpse of the real Rebecca, as reincarnated by an unwitting girl; a vertiginous moment, if you allow the film to bind you to its spell.
Someone complained that Armie Hammer lacks the volcanic fury of Olivier; I submit that Hammer played the character as he was directed, the way Olivier played the character as Hitchcock directed — where the latter emphasized anger management issues spiced with danger (Hitchcock was nothing if not an entertainer), Hammer emphasizes the dramatic truth of Max, wounded by years of marriage to Rebecca. Less victimizer than victim, Max waits to be rescued by his new Mrs. de Winter.
Everyone remembers Mrs. Danvers of course — Rebecca’s housekeeper. As played by Judith Anderson she’s a demonic figure in black dress, sharp nose flanked by feline eyes, often gliding into a shot straight towards the camera, when not standing preternaturally still. An iconic role, kabuki-like in its elegance and intensity; Kristin Scott Thomas has the freedom and confidence to flesh out that intensity with fascinating details — a world-weary air (she’s seen everything, done everything, nothing surprises her); a chilly mask that when dropped reveals an almost cheerful eagerness to confide Rebecca’s most intimate secrets. At one point Scott Thomas barks: “I’ll see you in hell, Danny! I’ll see you in hell first!” and you know it’s a dead-on impersonation — the younger Scott Thomas would have made a perfect Rebecca. The new wife stumbles away in despair; Mrs. Danvers follows, the camera gliding alongside to better catch her supermodel strut. A more victimized Max, a more proactive Mrs. De Winter, a searing hot Mrs. Danvers — folks have also complained that Wheatley merely recycles Hitchcock, without bringing any real change to the table.
Actually there’s a lovely symmetry to all this: Wheatley’s version is like a second Mrs. De Winter to Hitchcock’s supposedly incomparable first. “You’ll never replace her. You can’t replace her,” Mrs. Danvers tells the sobbing new wife. Apparently most people agree; Wheatley can certainly relate. Far as I’m concerned both are interesting adaptations, yet both fail to fully channel Du Maurier: Hitchcock because Selznick kept standing on his neck**, Wheatley because he lacks Hitchcock’s tightly repressed perversity (Wheatley is perverse but hardly repressed). Both also fail to depict Du Maurier’s true ending, of the De Winters half-enjoying their half-life exiled to a string of anonymous hotel rooms, the sight of Manderley denied to them forever (Hitchcock [Selznick?] drops the gloomy epilogue entirely; Wheatley turns the hotel room into an upgraded Club Med suite in Cairo, complete with complimentary wine and languorous morning sex). Both squander a good portion of their production budget on burning down Manderley (Selznick gleefully channeling his earlier Burning of Atlanta) when in the novel Manderley simply vanished into the horizon, the only remaining trace (“looks almost as though the dawn was breaking over there, beyond those hills”) a fall of ash from the sky.
Which is the better version, the Hitchcock or the Wheatley? The Du Maurier, I say, remembering how I cracked open the book one early evening and finished in time for sunrise (“looks almost as though the dawn was breaking over there”), remembering how bitterly disappointed I was when I first saw the Hitchcock (“It was an accident? Then why the years of guilt? Why bother hiding her body?”). If I learned anything from Du Maurier I learned this: no matter where you go, no matter what you do, no matter how high you rise, there’s always someone taller, smarter, more beautiful looming behind. I can certainly relate.
*A digression: I suppose it can be argued that Fontaine’s career wasn’t as brilliant as sister and lifelong rival Olivia de Havilland’s, and given the latter’s filmography (Gone With the Wind; The Strawberry Blonde; They Died With Their Boots On; The Adventure of Robin Hood; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte; The Heiress) you may have a point. But Fontaine did do Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist, and Max Ophuls’ Letter to an Unknown Woman… and on the basis of those two titles I rest my case.
**What’s Hitchcock in Hollywood like when fully unleashed? Take a look at Notorious made six years later, when Selznick was too bogged down with the making of Duel in the Sun to bother his director — an even more perverse menage a trois where the nymphomaniac heroine is sold into marital servitude, the coldhearted adulterer is a CIA agent, the loving husband a Nazi spy.