The biggest shock of Netflix’s new adaptation of “Rebecca” comes early on. The wealthy Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) asks a shy young servant (Lily James) whom he meets at a Monte Carlo hotel to marry him, and move into his sprawling estate in England.
What?! James is a shy servant, and no one has ever proposed to her? Unbelievable. That definitely doesn’t jibe with recent headlines about how British men behave around James while in Europe.
James, talented though she is, is emblematic of director Ben Wheatley’s downfall here: gorgeous aesthetic given favor over taut storytelling. The cast is a walking-talking Vogue spread and the scope of Manderley, the home by the sea, outdoes Alfred Hitchcock’s more intimate setting of the 1940s. That does not make it better.
The young woman, an unnamed narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, is plagued by paranoia and feelings of inadequacy over Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca. Hitchcock amped this up, winning a Best Picture Oscar, with shadows and claustrophobic tête-à-têtes.
Every conversation in the 2020 “Rebecca” seems to happen beneath a 50-foot ceiling. Robin Leach could emerge from a door at any moment.
The naïve new Mrs. de Winter is especially bullied by Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the housekeeper in charge of Manderley who is fiercely devoted to the late Rebecca.
“Don’t worry — she’s not as scary as she seems,” Maxim says after the women first meet. Wanna bet?
During one of the tensest scenes in the airy film, Danvers brusquely brushes the new lady of the house’s hair and natters on about her beloved Rebecca. “She’s still here,” Danvers says ghoulishly. “We feel her. I wonder what she’s thinking about you? Taking her husband, using her name.” Crack that whip!
Scott Thomas sounds like she’s about to pull out a shiv and knife her new boss right then and there. The actress is so good, you wish she could reprise the role in a better film that actually deserves her.
“Rebecca” cannot survive on Danvers alone, however. Maxim and his new wife fuel the mystery and chilling suspense of the story that unfolds, and unfolds . . . and unfolds. Part of what’s kept du Maurier’s novel popular for more than 80 years is a tone of supernatural horror that reveals itself to be a psychological thriller.
Hammer and James don’t sell any specific tone. Hammer works best in hollow roles — such as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network” — and doesn’t sing in parts with troublesome layers and backstory. Maxim’s cool exterior conceals impossible anguish, and it is an acting challenge for which Hammer does not have the tools.
James is better. She’s a deep-feeling actress, who made “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” sparkle against all odds. The casting isn’t quite right though, and most of the film’s other elements don’t support her. For now, James’ most gripping story about a spurned wife can be found, not on Netflix, but on Page Six.