A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife.
For obvious reasons, when reading books / watching movies as I’ve got older I’ve found myself no longer identifying with the sweet ingenue and recognising more of myself in the prickly creature that comes into her own in middle age.
So it was with Ben Wheatley’s new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where I found a kindred spirit in the cactus the second Mrs de Winter sees on her first drive out with Maxim: apparently it lives to be 200 years old and doesn’t bloom until it’s 70.
That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the evil, middle aged Mrs Danvers; it’s more that Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays her in her latest incarnation, is such a deliciously perfect villainess I couldn’t hope to compete, with my bitching about the PTA and eating all the sourdough samples in Waitrose.
Unsurprisingly, Scott Thomas is the best thing at Manderley, though the film is not without other charms, Maxim de Winter’s horrid mustard suit notwithstanding.
There’s no scenery-chewing from Scott Thomas as the housekeeper manipulates her new mistress, just evil obsession, her vicious barbs always heavy with longing for the dead Rebecca. Beneath that icy thin smile and iron-rod posture, there’s cold fury, and a foreboding chill that rises when we hear the clip-clop of her shoes approaching. Even her changed ending (less powerful than Hitchcock’s) can’t alter that, or the dampened lesbian subtext (Mrs Danvers’ love for Rebecca is more like that of an obsessive limpet, used by her mistress as much as Maxim was).
Mrs Danvers’ contempt for the unworldly and new Mrs de Winter, her fixation on her dead mistress and her preparedness to do whatever it takes to preserve Rebecca’s memory have always made Mrs Danvers truly ageless, adrift from her 1930s setting, and here I was half expecting Scott Thomas to mock her new mistress for her good bag and her cheap shoes, like a below-stairs Hannibal Lecter.
As for the other main players, I’ve never been an Armie Hammer fan, finding him insufferably smug. Which means that, like James Corden’s triumphant turn as the bumptious Peter Rabbit, Hammer is perfectly cast as Maxim de Winter, part entitled aristocrat and part Victorian Dad in his wooing and treatment of our nameless heroine. Maxim’s confidence, bred through hundreds of years of landed de Winters, leads him to appear in that hideous mustard suit all the time, though I’m assuming he’s one of those men who considers himself too important to choose what to wear and simply has ten identical ones made at the start of every season.
And the new Mrs de Winter? I’ll be honest, Lily James’s particular brand of diffidence has not, up until now, done much for me; though here she makes her character’s transformation from underdog to steely, in-charge glamourpuss seem genuine and true (until the last scene, anyway). She doesn’t exactly start with the mousy ways and timidity I would expect, being more a young woman trapped by circumstance, and then overwhelmed by opportunity. James’s Mrs de Winter the Second is warily self-contained but self-reliant, borne of being an orphan. It’s entirely understandable, as is her determination not to let her fake composure slip when she accidentally orders oysters for her first breakfast with Maxim.
She meets him in Monte Carlo, where she is a lady’s companion to the ageing socialite American Mrs Van Hopper (a rather too unpleasant Ann Dowd). A fortuitous illness befalling her boss means our unnamed heroine has plenty of time for breakfasts, drives and beach days with Maxim, once he notices her; though while he prods her about her parents’ deaths his own widowerhood is not up for discussion.
Soon they are married and returning to Manderley, the generously staffed coastal family seat given to his forebears by Henry VIII, no less. All British country houses have their ghosts, though few are as pervasive or as recent as that of the deceased Rebecca de Winter, Maxim’s first wife.
And if you’re wondering whether Wheatley is going to stint on the melodrama or dive right in, housekeeper Mrs Danvers literally appears to a clap of thunder. She’s brutal towards the new Mrs de Winter, casually accusing her of having been a lady’s maid, and deliberately sets her up for a fall.
Meanwhile Max tells his young wife nothing, yet expects her to tiptoe through the pain-filled shadows of his old life.
The famous fancy dress ball scene is humiliating to watch – how could it not be, as Mrs de Winter comes downstairs dressed in an identical scarlet outfit, chosen from a family portrait, to the one Rebecca wore at her last ball? Though soon all that is forgotten as Rebecca’s body is discovered in the bay, in her boat, which appears to have been scuttled deliberately. No longer is her death considered a tragic accident, and everyone wants to know how Maxim could have identified and buried the wrong woman.
The step from psychological horror story and gothic romance to courtroom drama is a smooth one, and like a play within a play: Mrs D takes the stand and Rebecca’s lover Jack Favell over-acts with glee in an attempt to send Maxim to the scaffold. Rebecca’s inquest – with findings of suicide or unlawful killing the only possible outcomes – is the making of the second Mrs de Winter, and finally Max needs her.
Little included in Rebecca really jars – beyond the odd, intrusive folksongs and some occasional dream/nightmare sequences – though the ghosts for the viewer are likely to be what is missing from the adaptation. At times it feels pedestrian and small-scale.
The production design is gorgeous though, from the cluttered boathouse – Rebecca’s own retreat – to her bedroom, a temple of 1930s elegance with its muted silvery greys and satin bedclothes. The doorway into it, with its art deco pattern and atrium of mirrors, indicates we’re moving into another world. It is this boudoir that is preserved in aspic, never changing as Mrs Danvers jealously guards her late mistress’s memory. The rest of the house is alive. Country houses might look timeless but it’s because they are always adaptable to changes in fashion, accumulating treasures from every era while gliding effortlessly on.
By which I mean that while this version of Rebecca is perfectly enjoyable in the moment, despite James’s impressive performance it will live on in my memory only as Scott Thomas purring icily over Rebecca’s black negligee.
Read my very spoilery article, Rebecca: Fitting up and fitting in.
Rebecca is available on Netflix
Watch the trailer now: