This is not your grandmother’s — OK your GREAT grandmother’s — “Rebecca,” not the “Rebecca” of Du Maurier and Hitchcock.
And hang me for heresy, that’s not the worst thing in the world. The original plays as fusty and old-fashioned and its story beats and revelations are common currency in film culture these days.
So when this lavish, lush, well-cast and well-acted new Netflix “Rebecca” goes off the rails, as it were, it’s not necessarily going “wrong.” Although sometimes it is.
But it’s far more “faithful” than you’d expect from a trio of screenwriters who gave us “Race” (Jesse Owens bio pic), “Seberg,” “Kick-Ass” and “Kingsmen.” And it’s far more opulent and almost literary, not what one would guess you’d get from the director of the violent thrillers “Free Fire” and “High Rise.”
For Armie Hammer, playing a wealthy British widower to “the manner born” is no stretch.
“Downton Abbey” veteran Lily James is easy to see in a 1930s period piece. But this version of our unnamed “new” Mrs. de Winter gives us the plucky, working class James of “Baby Driver” and “Yesterday.”
Kristin Scott Thomas as the icy, scheming head of household staff Mrs. Danvers? That’s the very definition of “on the nose casting.”
But for me, the icing on the cake, the reason I’m endorsing this “Rebecca” and others are not, is first act scene-stealer Ann Dowd. The “Compliance” and “Handmaid’s Tale” veteran knocks it straight out of the park as our unnamed heroine’s imperious and cruel employer, Mrs. Van Hopper. She is everything one hates about the archetype of Old Money — insufferable, stupid and venal.
As an American snob who has hired an English “lady companion,” Dowd’s withering delivery of every insult is to be relished, none more than the final one she has to offer. Our “lady companion” has won the heart of the brooding but charming and seemingly kind Maxim de Winter (Hammer) after meeting him in Monte Carlo.
“When you trap a man between your legs,” she hisses, “they don’t stay around for long.”
The quick courtship of the rich man who was widowed just a year before raises eyebrows, infuriates the between-World-Wars French hotel staff and makes us fret for the working class girl swept up in wealth, comfort and mystery the moment she arrives at the estate the family has held “since the Tudors.”
That would be Manderlay, of “Last night I went to Manderlay again,” one of the most famous opening lines in all of mystery literature.
That’s what the new Mrs. de Winter is caught up in — “mystery.” How much did Max love the late Rebecca? How did she die? Why will he not speak of that, even though he mentions his “late wife” more often than any newlywed would like to hear?
Is she in danger?
Here is where James’ version of the heroine stands apart. There’s nothing passive about the character, or her way of playing her. She has agency, takes the initiative and merits the line “She’s far smarter than she looks” when it’s said of her later on.
She hears of “Max’s famous temper,” and spends too much time walking on glass around him. But she reaches for answers, snoops about. And she tries desperately to hold her own against the officious and callous ruler of the household staff, Mrs. Danvers.
Kristin Scott Thomas makes the woman’s every look and every line a judgment, hostile in intent. “When Mrs. de Winter was alive” seems to start every sentence. “Mrs. de Winter was very particular about her sauces,” punctuates a dinner menu insult.
Say hello to the genre’s biggest bitch.
And therein lies the fundamental flaw in any traditional adaption of “Rebecca,” reason enough to make this one different. Danvers is obviously hostile and prone to gas-lighting her new mistress. The doubt, the hunch that “maybe there’s a ghost” or that maybe this new situation is making the new Mrs. de Winter mad, or that she does or doesn’t know what her too-new husband is capable of, was always a hard sell. Why not dispense with some of that?
Hammer suggests plenty of menace, displacing the charm and simple kindness that started the romance.
Playing up other characters — the caddish cousin Jack (Sam Riley, a “bounder” if ever there was one) and Max’s sympathetic sister (Keeley Hawes, terrific) shows how this novel was malleable and rich enough to merit mini-series treatment back in the ’90s.
The settings are stunning, the motorcars — Max’s 1930s Bentley 3.5 litre roadster merits mention by the characters in the film — glorious.
But pint-sized James — you never realize how short her other leading men were until you see her paired with Hammer — carries this “Rebecca,” and I think carries it off, even as it’s taking us places no “Rebecca” has ever gone before.
It’s not a classic and not “Hitchcock,” but hell, thanks to James, Hammer, Thomas and Dowd, it’ll do.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, partial nudity, thematic elements and smoking
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristen Scott Thomas and Ann Dowd
Credits: Directed by Ben Wheatley, script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:03