Review: Sublime Lily James Performance And Immersive Storytelling Breathe Life Into ‘Rebecca’

Rebecca: Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX
It takes guts to remake Rebecca, and one wonders if director Ben Wheatley and company would be overshadowed by the presence of Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne Du Maurier, Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine (and let’s not forget Judith Anderson!). Eighty years is a long time between versions, and the great news is this Rebecca is worth your time.

Rebecca (L to R) Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter. Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

A young woman (Lily James) is romanced in Monte Carlo by rich widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Employed by the rude and privileged Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), the woman is more than happy to be swept off her feet by Maxim and live in the sprawling estate known as Manderley.

Now known simply as Mrs. de Winter, our protagonist’s storybook life gradually turns into a nightmare, as the estate continues to be haunted (at least figuratively) by the presence of Maxim’s dead wife Rebecca. Housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) ensures that Rebecca’s presence still remains in Manderley, and her affection for the late woman knows no bounds.

Rebecca: Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

Sam Riley co-stars as Rebecca’s cousin Jack Favell, a manipulative fellow who has his ulterior motives, and Tom Goodman-Hill is Maxim’s good friend and estate manager Frank Crawley. 

As Mrs. de Winter uncovers the specific details of Rebecca’s passing, she becomes encumbered by the continuing weight of the tragedy. No one in Manderley has moved on from Rebecca, and with Mrs. Danvers lording over the domain, Mrs. de Winter doesn’t have room to breathe.

Rebecca: (L to R) Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, Lily James as Daphne, Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter

It is simply impossible to replicate the cinematic moments that made Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic sing, and thankfully director Ben Wheatley doesn’t even try to parrot the original. Lily James is no Joan Fontaine and Armie Hammer is not Laurence Olivier, but who is?? James and Hammer make a believable couple, and their budding romance and their mutual heartache is palpable. 

Speaking of suspsence, check out our Find Your Film spotlight on director Brian De Palma:

While everyone in the cast does a fine job in their respectable role (Hammer captures the brooding nature of Maxim and Thomas brings some much needed humanity to Mrs. Danvers), it is Lily James who leaves the lasting impression with Rebecca. As much as I love Fontaine in the original, James has a more well developed character arc in this iteration (and James really knocks this role out of the park).

Wheatley also doesn’t try to infuse Rebecca with showy “Master of Suspense” style moments, and he lets that adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel exist in Alfred Hitchcock’s version. Instead, he understands the story is rich enough as is, and simply telling the story in an efficient manner (sans the heightened melodrama) is the way to go.

“Rebecca” (Netflix)

The production design as well as the visual compositions of the movie are top notch. Even though this film doesn’t have signature “Hitchcockian” moments, Rebecca is eye-cataching nonetheless. Every second of this movie feels immersive, and I was delighted to see this version go off in varied directions from the original.

The opening of the 1940 feature is so iconic that to replicate it would have been a head scratcher, but kudos to Wheatley for figuring out a way to work in that voiceover in a reimagined fashion. It’s going to be exciting to see Rebecca gain a whole new legion of fans who will, in turn, either watch Hitchcock’s film for the first time or approach it with different eyes.

Rebecca: Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Cr. KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

My mother, a devotee to the original, is adamant about not watching the remake. There is a thing to be said about loyalty, but one source can lead to its share of different retellengs. I am hopeful my mother returns to Manderley sooner than later, as Rebecca’s inescapable memory lives on thanks to Wheatley’s inspired vision.

Rating: 4 out of 5 *****

Rebecca hits Netflix on October 21. 

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