Netflix have a somewhat hit and miss reputation when it comes to their prestige projects; on paper, a return to Manderlay and Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel seems like a good idea. For a start, there’s Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers, one of those straight-off-the-bat casting ideas that’s a perfect fit. Two strong leads in Armie Hammer and Lily James, lavish production values and a newish voice in director Ben Wheatley; what could go wrong?
As often seems to be the case, the messy script is the problem here; 1938 novels need a bit of updating, and this new version struggles to get a grip of familiar tropes. Having the second Mrs De Winter (James) acting like a female Nancy Drew, breaking into a doctor’s office to search for clues doesn’t square with her timid character, who suddenly switches between a naïve ingénue and a seasoned pro who can clearly see what the coppers cannot. She’s initially presented as putty in the hands of Maxim (Hammer) when they meet in sunny Monte Carlo, or maybe she’s just revolted by his yellow suit, but soon she reverts to a schoolgirl when he marries her and takes her back to Manderlay, his stately pile where Mrs Danvers rules the roost.
On the basis of his work here, Wheatley is moving onwards and downwards by helming shark-stew sequel The Meg 2, and that gives you some idea where his career is going. After two memorable films, (Down Terrace, Kill List), he’d built up a cult reputation, but I can’t say I see much merit in Sightseers, A Field in England, Free Fire or High Rise; he seems to have run out of ideas straight out of the box. Aside from a couple of pastoral songs on the soundtrack, there’s no evidence of any real directorial stamp here, and the result is bland, bloodless and lacks any real flavour. Rebecca’s courtship has none of the brutishness required on Maxim’s part, and the scene where Rebecca confronts Mrs Danvers in front of the staff is completely off-message. And sure, Rebecca’s investigation gives her agency, but the evidence that she uncovers is what the authorities would have found almost immediately; the new version of Rebecca doesn’t solve Hitchcock’s continuing conundrum; why don’t they just go to the police? And the cliff-top ending is horribly botched, and somehow too melodramatic even for 1938.
A real creative like Anthony Minghella can take Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and continue the story for a good half-hour after the book’s plot has gone, and we never see the join. The tiny changes to the plot here stand-out immediately, and derail the narrative. It’s a lush, watchable but empty film that misses out on the class conflict, creepiness and drama. There’s a German stage-musical that tells the story of Danvers, and that might have been a more interesting direction to go; this Rebecca feels like a confused recollection of a dream rather than a skilled retelling. This new, bland Rebecca might entertain a few during lockdown, but a good film it is assuredly not.