Rebecca vs Rebecca

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Odin O’Sullivan finds out if the new Mrs De Winter measures up to the Original Rebecca

The original Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is considered an iconic example of the female gothic. For all intents and purposes, it is a masterful adaptation of Du Maurier’s original novel. So much so that often when Rebecca is mentioned, or its oft-quoted opening line is uttered, it is the 1940 film they are referring to as opposed to the novel. The original adaptation is so lauded that one would have to be mad to attempt to remake it. But as we all know Netflix has more money than sense, so in a year of little to no cinematic releases, we got Rebecca (2020). Directed by Ben Wheatly, who sadly seems to have been prevented from doing what he is usually capable of by Netflix, and featuring Armie Hammer in a banana coloured suit and Lilly James just Lilly-Jamesing all over the place as Maxim De Winter and the unnamed protagonist respectively.

The story centres on a naïve and insecure woman who is whisked off to the wonders of the aristocratic experience by the older and wealthier Maxim De Winter. After a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, our protagonist arrives in the cavernous halls of Manderley where the exceptionally dour Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson [1940], Kristen Scott Thomas [2020]) begins to pick away at her insecurities, and where the memory of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca still lingers. The original film takes this premise and builds upon it with clever production design, such as Manderley’s doorknobs all being shoulder height for our heroine, making her seem even smaller than the large house already makes her. In sharp black and white, the original film conveys character not through colour but through strong costuming and makeup. This contrasts strongly with the remakes lurid but strangely bland colour palette and costuming choices. I have already mentioned the banana coloured suit but that is merely the key offender in a myriad of bizarre costume choices. Set in the same period as the original, 1938, one would be forgiven for expecting period-correct (and considering the money Netflix has) expensive-looking clothing. After all, Maxim is supposed to be a millionaire, and in the original, he looks as such. In the remake, everyone looks like they’re wearing Marks & Spencer’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. It’s quite jarring to see the second Mrs De Winter, wife of millionaire aristocrat Maxim De Winter, wearing a jumper last seen on your well-to-do aunt as she steps out of a beautiful period-correct automobile, but thankfully Hammer’s suits are so garish and their cut so strange that Lilly James and her aunt-chic can blend into the background.

The word “miscast” has been thrown around by the critics in their reviews of the remake, but I would say it is “woefully miscast.” Armie Hammer, usually quite a strong actor, cannot seem to get a grasp on the character of Maxim De Winter. Played by Laurence Olivier in the original, Hammer cannot come anywhere close to the wonderfully morose histrionics Olivier exhibits as the brooding Maxim. Add to this a particularly slippery British accent, and the charming, mysterious Maxim becomes simply a handsome but boring man in a very loud and ill-fitting suit. Lily James too seems out of place, and not in the way her character is meant to. What in the original was naive and charming about the unnamed heroine becomes grating in the remake. Her constant bumbling and her willingness to forgive Maxim without question at every turn is honestly nauseating, especially considering Maxim is a distant and inattentive husband that she met less than a month ago. There are only two actors who seem to have grasped the essence of their characters, and they are Kristen Scott Thomas, who works with limited material to give us a chilling update to Mrs Danvers, and Sam Riley, who relishes his small amount of screen time as the charming and campy rogue Favel. But the most important character, the one we never see, Rebecca, is ironically enough, only semi-present in the remake. In the original, the memory of Rebecca lies heavy over the whole house, like a thick layer of dust the new Mrs De Winter just cannot brush away. In the remake, she is more of a light inconvenience signalled by some poorly CGI’d birds and her ugly room.

The ugly room in question is one which Mrs Danvers keeps exactly as it was on the day Rebecca died. A totem for her to sit in and reminisce. If this is sounding kind of gay to you, then you would be correct. The original film was notable for its later feminist and queer readings, particularly the reading of Mrs Danvers as a lesbian. When watching the original, the subtextual homoeroticism is clear between Danvers and the memory of Rebecca, and it makes the film even richer when viewed through a contemporary lens. I had presumed that the remake, coming out a full eighty years later, would have perhaps furthered this well-established reading, with Kristen Scott Thomas being allowed to lean into the long-presumed gayness of Mrs Danvers. I was wrong. Somehow this remake is less gay and less sexy than the 1940 version, with Scott Thomas performing Danvers as more of a motherly figure. Choosing to make Danvers more motherly than sexual, more normative than transgressive, prevents this film from updating the original at all. And why remake a classic when you can’t even offer a contemporary interpretation or push the boat out a little further than was allowed back in 1940?

We also need to discuss the key differences in the film’s climactic moment (for those of you who don’t want an eighty-year-old spoiler, consider this as your warning). In the original, as Maxim confesses to our heroine that in fact, he never loved Rebecca, that he hated her, the cabin they stand in, where Rebecca had her extramarital trysts with Favel, is heavy with her presence. As Maxim describes the night of her death, the camera follows an empty space, as if she were there. The power Rebecca has in the original, the power to direct our gaze away from Maxim and to where she once stood, is completely absent in the remake. The moment so weighted with significance in the original plays out rather quickly and without any real gravitas or pay off. In the original (novel notwithstanding) Maxim admits to fighting with his wife over her infidelity, but does not admit to killing her, insisting she fell and hit her head before he covered it up with a fake shipwreck. Since he never loved her, she was evil, and he didn’t actually kill her, our heroine falls into his arms and does everything she can to make sure he is proven innocent. This all seems a little too easy in the original, so I presumed they would update and rectify this in the remake. In a sense they did, but somehow they made it worse. In the remake, Maxim actually admits to killing his wife but our heroine simply does not care. She throws all her weight behind proving him innocent, but in this case, it all feels a little off. The fervour with which she defends her wife-murdering husband is distasteful, to put it mildly. 

The remake is an astoundingly conservative film in that it somehow manages to be less progressive than a Hitchcock film from the 1940s. That takes skill. Not only does it fail to realise that Rebecca must die because she transgresses the laws of femininity and refuses to be a powerless and doting wife, but it also provides Maxim with a newer, younger, obedient wife to replace her after she is killed. The only interesting aspect of the remake is in how closely it mirrors the plight of its protagonist. Insecure and unsure of her new husband, she dwells under the long shadow cast by her predecessor, attempting to impress with new visually stimulating material. And when that doesn’t work, she begins to mimic the original. The remake can change the ending, it can provide a pretend happily ever after, but the fact of the matter is its predecessor isn’t dead and the insecurity this generates can be felt in every single frame. It constantly refuses association and self-consciously attempts to disassociate itself with the original through its design, costuming, and lurid visuals, but it all pales in comparison to Rebecca.