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In Hollywood, there seems to be an unwritten rule: Don’t remake Alfred Hitchcock. Just rip him off. His films have cast a long shadow over the history of cinema, with directors as varied as Brian De Palma, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson each counting him as a major influence, but direct remakes of his films are rare. The only example even worth discussing is Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, which implicitly argues that the master of suspense cannot be outdone, and we probably shouldn’t try.
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley gets points for courage in remaking Rebecca, the 1940 masterpiece about a woman haunted by the memory of her husband’s deceased first wife, and Hitch’s only Best Picture winner. The new one stars Lily James (Cinderella) as the nameless young beauty who, while visiting the French Riviera as personal assistant to a haughty older woman (Ann Dowd), is swept off her feet by the handsome and mysterious widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). She abandons her duties as they steal away to a different hiding spot every day. He abandons his sense of propriety and asks her to marry him.
In the early going, Wheatley seems firmly in control of the elements, using his sun-drenched location, bold wardrobes, and beautiful stars to pack every frame with sheer glamour. We’re introduced to Hammer in a mustard yellow suit that nearly matches his bronzed skin and golden locks. It clings tightly to his muscled torso, as if prizing its proximity to perfection. James seems to have dropped in from the future, with her modern bob hanging stylishly on her shoulders and her chic daywear. She looks more like a J.Crew model than a woman of the ’30s, but who are we to complain? Much of cinema is predicated on our desire to stare unabashedly at beautiful people.
Rebecca is at its best in the first half, when it can luxuriate in these surfaces without facing up to the complex people underneath. After a whirlwind romance and wedding, Mr. de Winter brings his bride back to Manderley, a sprawling estate in the English country managed by the stuffy Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is still mourning Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. It’s there that beauty turns against the second one. The cavernous rooms and hallways of Manderley hold secrets in their shadows and whisper the name of its former owner. Later, a bespoke evening gown she chooses for a gala is misinterpreted by her husband and threatens to ruin their romance. In Rebecca, beauty is just a vessel for pain.
It’s a gorgeous film to behold, but what it lacks is that imperceptible sense of a firm hand guiding its story. In the second half, the gothic romance becomes a whodunit and a courtroom drama, and Wheatley loses the thread. The film never locates Mr. de Winter’s humanity—Hammer’s stilted performance is the primary culprit—and it does even worse by Mrs. Danvers. Her raging contempt for the new Mrs. de Winter should stand out in a world of repressed emotions, but the screenplay gives her too much exposition and not enough action. It’s a waste of both a fine actor and a distinct energy that the film desperately needs.
Perhaps it’s always foolish to remake Hitchcock, but Wheatley is particularly ill-suited to the material. Known for his orgiastic hyper-violence (High-Rise, Free Fire), Rebecca asks him to invert his rage and express more complex feelings: longing, jealousy, and loneliness. Neither he nor his actors are up to the task, and, much like its protagonist, the film fails to live up to the original. Rebecca wants to tear down its edifices, but it only leaves us stuck admiring the view.
Rebecca is streaming now on Netflix.