by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
I'm not going to waste time comparing director Ben Wheatley's adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's classic Rebecca to Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 masterpiece. It's extraordinary, and one of the precious handful of Best Picture Academy Award-winners that deserves all 8.5 pounds of its Oscar. If you've never seen it, please do what you need to in order to remedy that. May I recommend the Criterion Collection's superb Blu-ray? It's lovely.
Wheatley's film deserves to stand on its own outside of the Hitchcock version, as it is indeed a different animal from its Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine-starring predecessor. Not that I would expect anything different from the guy behind such weirdly ambitious genre mashups like Kill List, Sightseers, High-Rise and Free Fire. The director appears to see the world from a unique point of view, one filled with obtuse angles and unexpected bursts of pugnacious imagination. There's no way Wheatley would go the expected route with this mysterious gothic romance, and that's just as it should be.
If only his Rebecca took more risks, went in even more unusual directions and didn't feel so by the numbers right at the point where it should be on the verge of careening out of control, maybe there would be something worthwhile to talk about. Working from a script by Jane Goldman (Stardust), Joe Shrapnel (Race) and Anna Waterhouse (The Aftermath), there is a perfunctory tediousness to the central plot mechanics driving this adaptation forward which grow increasingly tiresome as events progress, and if not for superb performances from Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas I do not think I'd have much in the way of positives to talk about.
That's not true. The film is impeccably designed across the board. From Julian Day's (Rocketman) exquisite costumes, to Sarah Greenwood's (Atonement) marvelous production design, to Laurie Rose's (Summerland) sumptuous cinematography and Clint Mansell's (The Fountain) robustly lush score, Wheatley's latest is a sensory feast. Additionally, the opening act featuring the courtship between the future second Mrs. De Winter (James) and the brooding Lord of Manderley Maxim De Winter (Armie Hammer) is divine, and I just adored the sundrenched sensuousness of it all as this pair quickly became lost in one another's arms.
It is after they are married and finally arrive at Maxim's sprawling British estate that things go off the rails. Even a perfectly cast Thomas as the perpetually scowling head of household Mrs. Danvers isn't enough to steady the ship. All urgency disappears, and the central mystery as to why the late Rebecca De Winter's ethereal presence is haunting all who reside at Manderley isn't worth the effort it takes to solve. It becomes a rote, emotionally muted slog, and what it lacks in suspense it equally showcases a noted deficiency in romance, and to say this is problematic is to understate the obvious considerably.
What's most frustrating is that Wheatley does stage a small handful of splendid moments that are undeniably effective. Mrs. De Winter's first trip to the dilapidated beachside cottage where something horrible possibly took place. The conniving subtlety of Mrs. Danvers' machinations leading up to the return of Manderley's costume ball, formerly the social event of the season before the former mistress' tragic demise. A horseback ride between Mrs. DeWinter and Rebecca's black sheep cousin Jack Favell (Sam Riley) that begins with beguiling charm and culminates in sinister discombobulation.
But it isn't enough. The chemistry that James and Hammer showcased in spades during the first act disappears once they end up at Manderley, and while I understand part of that is a facet of the puzzle Mrs. De Winter takes it upon herself to solve, there should be at least an iota of heat passing between the pair to make her travails meaningful. More than that, Rebecca De Winter is supposed to hover over everything that happens like an anvil waiting to drop and destroy all unlucky enough to be standing underneath it. Instead, she's something of a non-presence. Her ghost isn't just ephemeral, it's practically nonexistent, making all of Maxim's brooding, Mrs. Danvers' scheming and Favell's smarmy indignation meaningless.
Wheatley is a talented filmmaker, and he showcases distinctly vibrant and colorful flourishes throughout Rebecca that caught my eye and forced me to pay attention. But even with James giving everything she's got as Mrs. De Winter and featuring technical facets that are nothing less than superlative throughout, this new adaptation of Du Maurier's novel falls crushingly flat. It left me wanting more, this emotionally flaccid retelling of one of literature's greatest gothic romances a frustrating waste of time.