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Rebecca

Ben Wheatley’s new Netflix film might make you wonder where the company gets the audacity to continually raise its subscription price. 

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“We none of us live in the past, Maxim most of all”, says Mrs Danvers, the hawkish housekeeper in Ben Wheatley’s reimagining of Rebecca.

The same could be said of Wheatley’s clumsy and brutish treatment of the classic story, written by Daphne de Maurier and fabulously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Reboots and reimaginings shouldn’t have to be beholden to the styles and ideas of their original works, but in Netflix’s glossy version, Wheatley takes that notion to disastrous limits. All the subtext and soul of the original story is shipwrecked in favour of twirling dresses and lovingly shot sunbeams falling on mahogany furnishing.

The tale concerns the rich Maxim DeWinter and his new bride. The gentleman brings a pretty young woman back to his mansion – the elusive Manderley – after becoming smitten with her on a French holiday. Problems arise when she struggles to adapt to her new environment, being from a ‘lower’ background, and to the manipulations of old housekeeper Mrs Danvers, who adored Maxim’s first wife Rebecca to a sociopathic degree. The idea of the old, more beautiful Mrs DeWinter also stalks her as she manoeuvres her new surroundings.

(Hitchcock’s masterpiece can easily be found online – watch that instead of this, I beg of you.)

Wheatley is a director who, looking at his almost slapstick credits, doesn’t seem to have anything to add to the ghostly tale. Hitchcock’s Rebecca never appears on screen. Wheatley, perhaps fearing a script that would test the short-attention-span of Netflix executives, succumbs to obviousness with the trite night terrors of the new Mrs DeWinter, through which we glimpse Rebecca in spectacular red dresses as she wanders the corridors through horror movie mists.

In one hallucination, the new Mrs DeWinter is surrounded by drunken partygoers who swarm around her, chanting, “Rebecca! Rebecca!” Each chant stomps on the idea of subtlety and the audaciously terrible moment would have the brilliant De Maurier rolling in her grave.

That’s not to devalue the sometimes forward-thinking stylistic forays into the shrieking haunted house genre on Netflix, such as Mike Flanagan led-shows like Hill House and Bly Manor, where horror and trauma isn’t just an embellishment but an inherent part of the story and its characters. But the tale of Rebecca at its core is a tragedy, not a horror. That’s where Wheatley – otherwise a director who has displayed wit and dexterity in works like High Risemiscalibrates.

Hitchcock’s Rebecca lingers. Its final shot is a creepy zoom of Rebecca’s old four-poster bed as Mrs Danvers lights the old place up. Rebecca’s initial sewed onto a pillow is a stitch, or a scar, that subtly permeates the audience’s anxieties. The fiery apex isn’t loud or tense, but eerie and tragic. Wheatley’s Mrs Danvers, instead, burns down Manderley in an arc so one-dimensional and flimsy that I don’t have the time to go into it here.

Even the final scene riffs on other movies like Oldboy and Gone Girl, showing the new Mrs DeWinter engaging in carnal bliss with her beautiful spouse. Just like the closing shots of those films, it ends with a shot of her face. It’s clear for once what Wheatley was going for here: the final scene conveys the terrors and fears involved in the utopian idea of marriage. But, unlike with The Graduate’s infamous final scene, we are not invested in the characters because Wheatley has done nothing to get us to care about – or even understand – Maxim DeWinter and his new bride.

In 1940, Hitchcock’s new Mrs DeWinter, played by Joan Fontaine, stuttered and flinched through Manderley. Her fluttering instability affected the audience; there was a pulsating nerve to the performance. In 2020, Lily James weeps and groans when things don’t go her way like a soap character might. It makes you wonder whether this 21st century pipeline of glossy, vacuous Netflix offerings is a new form of soap opera. We are being fed a constant supply of short-term entertainment and shallow, high-definition video comforts.

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