Around this time of year, we become invested in ghost stories. Stories of haunted houses and paranormal activity fill the screens as people deliberately scare themselves. But there are different kinds of haunting beyond vengeful spirits — hauntings by past actions, by decisions, by expectations. And, in the case of “Rebecca,” being haunted by those who came before.
Based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier and the 1940 Hitchcock film that followed, this 2020 “Rebecca” has many shades of the original. The film is set in the same time period, giving it a subtle period piece feel, and the plot as a whole remains nearly identical: a young woman (Lily James, “Baby Driver”) meets and marries Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, “Call Me by Your Name”), a wealthy widower, but finds herself struggling to overcome the shadow of his deceased wife, Rebecca.
The young woman is never given a first name, referred to only as “Mrs. de Winter” after her marriage to Maxim — the only name that is important, it seems, is Rebecca. Rebecca’s face is never seen, but her presence is everywhere at Manderley — everything the new Mrs. de Winter sees, from the unopened mail to the items emblazoned with a signature “R,” seems to belong to Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, “Only God Forgives”), the housekeeper and former confidant of Rebecca de Winter, has a sinister vendetta against the new lady of the house: She ominously lurks in corners, sabotages Mrs. de Winter’s attempts to try new things in the house and continuously tells her how special and revered Rebecca was. Between the emotional ghosts and psychological grudges, Mrs. de Winter feels like an imposter in her own home.
The film is undoubtedly stunning: The gorgeous shots of gardens in Italy and cliffs in England, combined with the delightful 1930s-inspired clothing, create a vibrant color palette that jumps off the screen. Creative directing and editing create an effect of fluidity in memories and dreams — flashes of moments make their way into the story, but it’s occasionally unclear if they are images of what is to come or images of a past that the unnamed protagonist did not see. Yet the film still falters. In general, there’s some solid acting from James and Hammer — and, pleasantly, Hammer’s British accent isn’t atrocious, which is more than I can say for some American actors — but little to no substance in any of the characters.
The portrayals of women are particularly disappointing. Mrs. Danvers is so one-track minded that she becomes one dimensional. Mrs. de Winter is the cliché kind of unique — she’s an orphan who knows about cars and reads lots of books, which of course is surprising because what woman would ever read or know about cars? But despite her intelligence and capability she is always at the mercy of others. And Rebecca, despite her looming presence, is little more than an idea.
The biggest issue, however, is the manifestation of the plot. While some imagery finds a strong foothold in the story, there are moments that feel like important foreshadowing but end up being meaningless. The rising tension doesn’t quite reach a point that makes sense; because of this, the climax feels hollow and undeserved in context. At one point, as more details are revealed, the story shifts so abruptly that it feels almost like two separate films, one right after the other. Even the ending feels a little off, like the moral of the story doesn’t match the story itself.
The question that remains is why — why recreate the award-winning Hitchcock adaptation of “Rebecca” from 1940? Though I haven’t seen the original, it seems odd to do a remake without adding anything particularly new or interesting. Instead, this “Rebecca” is a film, soaked in an exorbitant amount of dramatic rain, that isn’t much more than two attractive leads in an exquisite house dealing with psychological gothic horror and/or maybe solving a murder mystery (depending on which half of the film you’re watching). One can’t help but think that, like Mrs. de Winter, “Rebecca” is also haunted — haunted by the superiority of what came before.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.