Warning: very spoilery, though I have at least made my peace with Maxim’s hideous mustard suit, which gets not a single mention (my review, of the film and his vile suit, is here):
As housekeeper at Manderley, Mrs Danvers hovers between below stairs and upstairs, not fully fitting in with either. Her job means what she wants she gets (it’s at her insistence, Frith the butler tells Maxim when he returns with his new bride to a fully-staffed reception outside the front door) but she has to work in the background as Max is lord of all he surveys. Downstairs at mealtimes the servants sit at long tables in their identical Manderley uniforms, while Mrs Danvers sits at the head of one of them in her dark suit and perfect, severe hair.
The second Mrs de Winter doesn’t fit in above or below stairs either; not a servant, and not considered, particularly by servants, as a lady of the manor.
Both women seem to have something unworldly about them, though Mrs Danvers is always more interesting: shot half in shadow, or slipping out into the light then back into the dark, she’s like a guard for her dead mistress, bridging the gap between life and death. Down by the beach, beneath the cliff, the jagged black rocks between shore and sea are a barrier between worlds. At the end of the film, when Mrs Danvers walks to the quay beneath the boathouse and jumps in, her hair unravelled, it’s as if she too is now returning to the dark.
Mrs de Winter meanwhile is a sometimes amorphous presence, as if she doesn’t deserve to be a solid entity. Waving off Max’s granny after a disastrous visit, she’s wrapped in a green coat that makes her almost invisible against the lush green of the lawn.
She becomes more “solid” later on, once circumstances force her out of her shell. Straight after the humiliations of the Manderley ball – where Mrs Danvers ensures Mrs de Winter wears the same dress Rebecca had worn at her last ball – a call goes out that a trawler has become stuck on the rocks in the bay.
A diver is sent down, and discovers Rebecca’s own boat, deliberately scuttled, with her body still in it, despite Maxim having previously identified another woman’s body found in the sea as his wife – and buried her.
She finds Maxim later in the boathouse, where he tells her how Rebecca – who has flaunted her affairs throughout their marriage – taunted him into shooting her dead, implying she was carrying another man’s baby, who would then inherit Manderley. He then put her body in the boat and scuttled it. By now Mrs de Winter is toughening up, and accepts her own coming duplicity; soon she’ll be helping cover up his actions, and now her face is half in darkness while Max’s is completely dark. (Incidentally, in Hitchcock’s film Rebecca dies after hitting her head. Hollywood’s Hays Code meant Maxim could not be seen to be getting away with murder.)
A new inquest is set. It’s not a criminal court, though it can only bring in one of two verdicts: suicide or unlawful killing. There is no indication Rebecca would want to kill herself, and evidence is emerging that she might have been pregnant by her cousin Favell.
Maxim becomes chief suspect and to save him Mrs de Winter has to become a sleuth, tracking down a doctor Rebecca had visited, then travelling to London to find out why she’d seen him. Tricking her way into the building one night, she then has to hide when the doctor returns. He finds her, despite the gloom – she’s no longer a wraith disappearing into the background.
Rebecca, it turns out, was not pregnant. The doctor is an oncologist, specialising in female cancers, and Rebecca was dying. Now there’s a motive for Rebecca killing herself in her boat, and Maxim is exonerated and released.
Rebecca is a fascinating antiheroine, a woman refusing to know her place. Married aristocrats sleeping around have always been two-a-penny, but her refusal to follow the accepted script of a rich woman in an unhappy marriage – do what you want but don’t threaten his lineage – is less common, which is partly why she fascinates us. Who would you rather spend an evening out with: the second Mrs de Winter, who would console you in the Ladies after some evening-ruining event; or the first, taking you on wild adventures before freezing you out the next morning?
Ms Danvers is in love with Rebecca, though in Wheatley’s version she comes across as more besotted and obsessed than romantic. (Daphne Du Maurier was married to a man but did have relationships with women. Rebecca, though she seems to have had numerous male lovers, sounds like the kind of woman who would have slept with anyone who took her fancy, man or woman.)
Presumably Rebecca used Mrs Danvers as much as she used everyone else. The dynamic would be fascinating to see: did Mrs D learn her manipulations from her boss? Or, considering how long they were together, was it the other way round, with Rebecca’s wealth and status allowing her to go further, to manipulate in plain sight rather than skulk in the shadows?
Both are happy to fit up someone they loathe: Rebecca taunts Maxim and dares him to kill her, knowing he will hang if he’s found out; Mrs Danvers attempts to destroy the second Mrs de Winter’s marriage by convincing her, through her gullible proxy Clarice, to wear an identical dress to the ball that Rebecca wore to her last one.
I wasn’t sold on the ending to Ben Wheatley’s version (the screenplay was written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse). In the book, Mrs Danvers survives but is never seen again. It’s never confirmed she set the fire either. In Hitchcock’s film, Mrs Danvers dies in the Manderley fire: returning to Manderley, Mr and Mrs de Winter spy Mrs Danvers in the high window in Rebecca’s bedroom. As the flames leap from the building, she perishes in the flames.
However in Netflix’s Rebecca, we see the housekeeper pour an accelerant onto Rebecca’s bed and negligee case, and then leave the flaming building to go down to the boathouse, which she also sets ablaze. She then jumps into the sea to her death. (I do think it fits with the idea of her moving between worlds, returning to Rebecca – I just preferred her fiery demise as an antidote to her icy vindictiveness, and that she’s dying in the room from which she so carefully guarded her mistress’s memory.)
Mrs De Winter follows her down to the cliffs, and pleads with her not to jump. Mrs Danvers, her hair falling out of her bun, is sneeringly brutal in her assessment that Mrs De W will never be happy with Maxim and then leaps off. In the water, we see her floating down in her mid-length skirt, holding onto the small case that hold her life, like an evil Mary Poppins. Earlier we saw a long-haired figure floating under the water; I assumed it was meant to be Rebecca though as Rebecca’s body remained in her boat, perhaps it was a flash-forward to Mrs Danvers’ death.
(One thing that bothers me – was Mrs Danvers ever married and if so why did Rebecca, looked after by her since childhood, call her Danny if that wasn’t then her surname? Is Mrs a prefix any housekeeper of a country house would take on, a signifier of age and status? Or maybe Mrs D was lying to the new Mrs De Winter that Rebecca and she were so close.)
The last scenes take place in Cairo, a few months later. Maxim and his wife are travelling the world, looking for somewhere to make their home. She seems much older, smoking at her dressing table, before they embrace and she stares fully at the camera. It’s incredibly cheesy, like the last frame of a horror film where the final girl, who has been through so much, turns out to be still possessed. I’m not even sure what it is meant to signify. That she’s now an equal partner in the marriage? Or has she remade herself for Maxim? Is she playing a role or has she really changed? Going overseas at least gives her a chance not just to escape Maxim’s past but her own. I’m not sure that she’s won though; she’s had to change, and she and Maxim are both still reacting to Rebecca.
And Maxim? He is always far from a hero, though by the end he at least sees that his new wife is a partner not a pet. He’s still a rich man though, and one who has got away with murder. It’s hard to argue with Mrs Danvers’ claim that “Why shouldn’t a woman please herself? She live her life as she pleased. No wonder a man had to kill her.”
Rebecca is available on Netflix.
Read my Rebecca review here. If you want to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and, as Mrs Danvers, Judith Anderson, it’s available here: