Immediately after the end-credits of Rebecca, director Ben Wheatley’s feeble remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film of the same name, my roommates and I scoured through YouTube in an attempt to find tangible explanations as to why the movie was just so bad. In an interview with Armie Hammer, known for his roles in Call Me By Your Name and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he candidly describes his experience working with the film: “Ben’s direction for these kinds of scenes are normally pretty simple. He’ll normally just be like, ‘Right, yeah, that was pretty good. Let’s do another one.’ And you go, ‘Okay, anything different?’ ‘No, no, no. I mean if you feel like doing something different, do something different.’” We had our answer. While Hammer casually lauded Wheatley’s nonchalant directive style, Wheatley’s passiveness ruined what could have been the perfect quarantine movie. Wheatley was handed all the correct parts: a reputable and popular cast, a pre-established and enticing plot, beautiful scenery and a huge budget. Despite the seeping inertia and potential of Rebecca, the film falls flat, leaving viewers with a disappointed sense of wanting more.
Rebecca stars Lily James, known for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Cinderella, as an unnamed protagonist, who later adopts the moniker Mrs. de Winter by marrying the wealthy, mysterious and recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Hammer). The soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter meets Maxim while working as a companion for a gaudy American woman on vacation in Monte Carlo. The setting is beautiful, perhaps the sole redeeming quality of Rebecca. Viewers watch James and Hammer take long luxurious drives down foreign costs, slip each other love letters handed in secret and embrace on the beach, reminiscent of past films of both James and Hammer, specifically Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Call Me By Your Name. However, the film jolts drastically from the inviting and romantic oceans of Monte Carlo to the de Winter’s grey, coastal British manor named Manderley. The shift in the setting is an appropriate reflection of the de Winters’s marriage. Both Manderley and Maxim are haunted by the death of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who drowned at sea. Almost instantly, the new Mrs. de Winter becomes emotionally distressed by the lingering presence of Rebecca and are driven apart by Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s conniving housekeeper. However, the intense and expected breakdown of the de Winters does not shine in Wheatley’s adaptation. James and Hammer fail to deliver in passion, as their lack of character development and on-screen chemistry leaves the audience bored rather than invested.
Previous versions of Rebecca have been lauded as masterpieces and cultural relics. Originally written by Daphne du Maurier in 1938, the novel has sold over 2 million copies and has never gone out of print. In 1940, Hitchcock adapted the popular novel into a film of the same name. Hitchcock’s Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards in 1941, winning both “Best Picture” and “Best Cinematography.” Famed New Yorker critic John Mosher praised Hitchcock’s commitment to cinematic detail: “[Hitchcock] labored hard to capture every tragic or ominous nuance, and presents a romance which is, I think, even more, stirring than the novel.” However, 80 years later, Rebecca has fallen out of the inherited cinematic knowledge of late millennials and early Gen Zers. Wheatley was given the ideal opportunity to bring du Maurier and Hitchcock’s cultural triumphs back to life. However, his version lacks the psychological slow-burn and detailed refinement that made previous adaptations classic gothic thrillers. Wheatley’s Rebecca is hardly scary. His use of cliché horror movie music and sloppy visions of ghosts are tacky, not foreboding, and the lack of rising action throughout the plot contributes to the film’s passiveness.
Remakes present directors with the unique opportunity to visit a classic and make it better. Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca does the opposite. His cinematic take is a stain on the story’s proud history and an extreme let down to audiences who were excited to see a revamped take on Hitchcock’s outdated film. Wheatley’s Rebecca is uniquely upsetting – the most disappointing movies are the ones that could have so easily been good.