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‘Rebecca’ – the 2020 Netflix movie a far cry from 1940’s Hitchcock classic

A scene from the 2020 Netflix version of "Rebecca"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong Manderley. It was the recent Technicolor one inhabited by Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas.

The one I meant to go to was the elegantly black-and white version, envisioned in 1940 by Alfred Hitchcock, home to Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson.

A scene from the 2020 Netflix version of “Rebecca”

There are those for whom Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 bestseller, “Rebecca,” is as close to Holy Writ as a mere novel can be. In it, a nameless young woman is in Monte Carlo as a lady’s companion to a snobbish bejeweled dowager. There, she meets Maxim de Winter, a mysterious, recently widowed aristocrat, best known as the owner of a vast fancy estate called Manderley.

Despite her relatively lowly origins and somewhat bumbling manner, they fall in love, get married and return to the family manse. But to paraphrase the late Princess Diana, there are more than two in this marriage: Maxim and the unnamed second Mrs. De Winter, but also his first wife, the much-admired Rebecca, and Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (who does most of the admiring).

The justly famous 1940 version was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, and it won him an Oscar for Best Picture. Or, perhaps more accurately, it won producer David O. Selznick an Oscar.

A movie poster of the far superior 1940’s version of “Rebecca”

Poor Fontaine, a mouseburger (tip of the hat to Helen Gurley Brown) if there ever was one, is intimidated by everything – from the huge staff and the crashing surf of the nearby ocean to the overwhelming meals and monogrammed “R’s” that seemingly appear on every possible surface.

The story is both simple and sinister. If done right – as it is by Hitchcock and his team – “Rebecca” can both send chills down your spine and make you laugh. It’s a ghost story with room for the sort of proletarian gaffes we saw in “Pretty Woman.”

Hitchcock and his cast do it right. And then some.

The recent remake, alas, does just about everything wrong. Yes, Monte Carlo is even prettier in color, as is Manderley, the many classic cars and the sumptuous costumes. But that’s about it.

James is both easy to like and easy on the eyes, even when dowdied down to sub-mouseburger level. But there’s something weightless about her, something that can’t be explained by her shyness and sense of not being good enough for her husband (and certainly not good enough to banish the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter).

As her husband-to-be, Hammer is inexplicably introduced in a mustard-yellow suit that, if nothing else, suggests he is not to the manor born – especially if the manor is the legendary Manderley But it’s not just his clothes that strike the wrong note. Hammer seems less mysterious than peeved. Things are somehow not going right for him, and it’s made him, uh, less happy than a man of his wealth and status should be. Well, there’s that thing about his dead wife, Rebecca, but somehow….

Poster of 2020 Netflix version of “Rebecca”

Finally, there’s the third part of this triangle (well, the flesh-and-blood part): Mrs. Danvers. Anderson’s worship at the shrine of the dead Rebecca is unforgettable in the 1940 version. She comes off, not as merely menacing, but as a menace. You wonder if she might strangle Wife #2 in her sleep.

Thomas brings a kind of well-bred disapproval to the role. She maintains a certain decorum most of the time, but she also suggests that the second Mrs. de Winter will never, ever fit in. Unless it’s over her dead body (She’s thinking the Missus, but as it turns out…)

The problem, I’m afraid, is the director.  Ben Wheatley’s best film is the admittedly entertaining “High-Rise,” an action-horror picture set in a glitzy skyscraper. It’s an apocalyptic tale with war and madness taking over 40 floors of an apartment building.

This just doesn’t strike me as the sensibility to re-imagine “Rebecca.” It’s almost as if somebody said, well, gee, that Hitchcock guy did a really good job on “The Birds.”  Maybe he’d be a good match for a movie of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

You get my meaning?

The 2020 version of “Rebecca” – a Netflix original – is available on Netflix.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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