Lily James in Rebecca (2020)TWITTER/CULTJER

I don’t understand Ben Wheatley’s Netflix adaptation of Rebecca. The original novel by Daphne du Maurier is a masterpiece of pulsating melodrama. Opening at a random page, I learn how ‘the rain and the rivulet mingled with one another, and the liquid note of the black bird fell upon the damp air in harmony with them both’. This is a representative sample of du Maurier’s unrepentantly over-the-top prose – prose which just barely keeps up with the even more absurdly overwrought plot. It’s one of the most purely pleasurable novels I’ve ever read, putting any soap opera to shame.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs DanversTWITTER/AWHOREFORGOMEZ

Meanwhile, this new film is inexplicably, and cosmically, boring. Wheatley’s two-hour-Instagram-reel-of-a-movie stars Lily James as the unnamed protagonist and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, the brooding, tortured, old-money type with whom she falls desperately in love. Hammer is six and a half feet tall, about 30 years old (Maxim is supposedly 42), and only intermittently capable of doing an English accent (annoyingly, he struggles most of all with the quite prominent word ‘beautiful’). James spends most of the film’s latter half sobbing and hyperventilating while her on-screen husband stands scowling in various drawing-rooms like an especially immobile cupboard.

“James spends most of the film’s latter half sobbing while her on-screen husband stands in various drawing-rooms like an especially immobile cupboard”.

But my beef with this film goes deeper than these snarky comments. The structure of Rebecca, for all its gleefully purple prose, is dark and complex. Mrs Danvers, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, the steely, black-clad housekeeper who doubles as the film’s only enjoyable performance, is one of the most intriguing and tragic queer figures in pre-contemporary ‘popular’ fiction. She is passionately and obsessively in love with the titular Rebecca, the deceased first Mrs. de Winter; she’s, at once, a brilliant gothic villain and strangely fragile, a wounded image of grief.


Equally, the nervy protagonist is a woman struggling to fit into a world in which she feels she doesn’t belong. The spectre of Jane Eyre presides over the novel’s surprisingly subtle exploration of a repressive, exclusionist class structure. These issues are ripe for thoughtful re-examination in the 21st century – what’s changed? What hasn’t? The story of two women crushed and turned against one another by a rigid social order is the sort of thing that Netflix (and other production companies) should be investing time and money into. It’s a shame that these questions are dealt with so sporadically and so clunkily. In one wince-inducing moment, Danvers declares that ‘she lived her life as she pleased, my Rebecca. No wonder a man had to kill her’. You can imagine how proud the three (three!) screenwriters were of that one.

“Most egregious of all is the slapdash way Manderley itself is configured”.

These kinds of insults to the audience’s intelligence are everywhere. The whole point of the story is the way in which Rebecca seems to haunt Manderley, the ancestral de Winter home: a supernatural aura is everywhere present but crucially nowhere stated. But this is apparently an ambiguity too far: ‘I don’t believe in ghosts’, says Lily James, predictably in tears. When she explains to Maxim near the beginning that her employment as a lady’s companion nets her £90 a year, she hastens to tell him that she knows ‘it’s not a lot for you, but it’s a lot for me’. This does not really count as doing social commentary.


Most egregious of all is the slapdash way Manderley itself is configured. The house is probably the main character of the novel: secret rooms, locked doors, echoing stone passages are all motifs which lend it its wonderfully spooky claustrophobia. The film, for some reason, used eight different stately homes to stand in for Manderley’s interior and grounds. This weird flex from Netflix is a disaster for atmosphere and continuity. Sometimes Manderley is a grand Tudor pile, all wood panels and chequered flooring; then we burst through a door into a blatantly Georgian room in an obviously different house. Oddest of all is Rebecca’s bedroom, which is transparently, surreally modern, with grey carpeting and icy polish, like something in a plutocrat’s London penthouse


Mountain View

Marion and cinema in Paris

Why does Netflix insist on producing, at vast expense, these dismal and forgettable films? They all look fantastic, for sure, shiny and polished and full of gorgeous well-dressed people, like a Burberry advert lasting a 120 minutes. But there is absolutely nothing beneath the surface.


The final line of du Maurier’s novel reads: ‘And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea’. Evocative, morbid, ridiculous—perfect. The final line of this new and extravagantly pointless film, delivered in breathy voiceover during one last gratuitous (and yet still totally sanitised) sex scene, tells us that James’ character has finally discovered ‘the one thing worth walking through flames for: love’. To quote Maxim’s senile grandmother (who appears once, halfway through, and is never heard of again): ’what have you done with Rebecca?’