Ben Wheatley has established himself as a confident and bold British director capable of delivering moments of crushing reality and palpable dread, and also adept at handling black comedy. Over the past decade, and before this adaptation was announced, there were rumours that the doors to the major studios were opening up for this Billericay boy. The interim project he selected was a curious action movie in microcosm, designed to showcase his technical attributes and his skill with actors, but Free Fire misfired so in walks Netflix.
His uneven adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is visually very pleasing with Hatfield House standing in for Manderley and truly conveying the grandeur and imposing solidity of the de Winter name. The middling script by the writers of Seberg, Joe Schrapnel and Anne Waterhouse, never flows as it should and they give very little motivation for Maxim or the future Mrs de Winter to actually become attracted to each other.
Wheatley has, almost always, told stories about people on the fringes of society, whether in the past or present. Regional accents abound and inform the humour which he imbues throughout his work. The story of how the presence of the late wife of Maxim de Winter wreaks havoc with the fortunes of his new wife has little humour, black or otherwise. Daphne Du Maurier’s novel told the story of the elevation through marriage of a girl to the upper echelons, but the new script fails to truly present a class critique, instead focusing on Mrs Danvers’ (Kristin Scott Thomas) Machiavellian manoeuvres in the dark, as she attempts to undermine and unsettle the new Mrs de Winter on behalf of the dead Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter.
Scott Thomas is perfect as the chilly Danvers, who appears to have been a surrogate mother to the wayward, devious, yet unseen Rebecca. Armie Hammer handles Englishness with aplomb, but disappears from chunks of the story returning only to chide his wife for being manipulated by Danvers, the proxy Rebecca. Lily James acquits herself well, demonstrating the qualities necessary to make the transition from one station to another, and whilst her confusion and slow dawning realisation that she is being sabotaged is palpable the way these events are presented fails to cement the requisite dread in the viewer.
Wheatley simply doesn’t have enough interest in devising interesting ways to tell, what is at first glance, a Downton Abbey-type thriller. Even when Manderley burns we are prevented from seeing the edifice crumble and die along with the manipulative legacy of his late wife. This was a curious choice for Wheatley but in light of Covid-19, now more than ever in the history of cinema, directors may be jettisoning their passions and interests in favour of paying the bills.
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