Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas
Genre: Drama / Thriller
A young newlywed (James) arrives at the imposing family estate of her new husband, Maxim de Winter (Hammer), and finds herself battling the shadow of his late first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy and presence still seem to linger on.
British director Ben Wheatley has been widely held in high regard ever since Kill List, but while he is obviously a talented filmmaker, I have always found most of films to be style over substance – and regard Sightseers as his best film. Well, though it should of course be judged on its own merits, following in the footsteps of the great Alfred Hitchcock and making a film adaptation of Rebecca is in many ways a brave move on Wheatley’s part. Well, Rebecca is actually one of the few Hitchcock films that I haven’t seen (shame on me!), and nor have I read the book nor indeed seen the 1997 BBC version, so I can genuinely judge this latest version of Rebecca on its own merits, and can confirm that it is yet another Ben Wheatley film that has plenty of style, but very little substance to come with it. So, the unsurprising result is a very watchable film, but an ultimately rather forgettable one, and this is coming from someone who may well be one of the few that knows literally nothing about the story and how it all pans out.
Rebecca is a very good-looking film that features a predictably good-looking cast, and it starts off with equally good looking sun-drenched Mediterranean locations, and then lavishly designed good-looking interiors of Maxim de Winter’s outrageously large mansion. Each room seems to have its own unique colour scheme that is captured perfectly by Laurie Rose’s cinematography, while the always brilliant Clint Mansell’s score is perhaps a tad generic, but certainly very well composed and very effective.
‘Competent’ is perhaps the best word used to describe Rebecca; all of the elements that usually play their part in a film are all done with the utmost competence, but for what is supposed to be a ‘thriller’ it is a film that is overall very numb and completely devoid of genuine tension or intrigue – and this is coming from someone who knows quite literally nothing about the story and its various developments and revelations. Because of how competently it is made Rebecca is just about watchable, but the set design is ultimately more interesting and has more depth than most of the actual human characters that reside within it.
Lily James seems to have made a career from playing timid characters that are supposed to be slightly quirky and girl-next-door, but as the film’s main protagonist looking permanently scared and crying a lot is nowhere enough to carry the film in the way that she has to in order to make both her character and the actual narrative intriguing and engaging. For this to be such a celebrated story and the Hitchcock film to be held in such high regard, the actual overall story in these must have been genuinely filled with psychological tension (and indeed why this latest film version exists), but yet this latest version of Rebecca has a decent story at its narrative core, but yet it is predominantly devoid of any actual tension or intrigue, and this surely proves that it is never just about the story, but how it is told and all of various elements that go into making a film, and of those elements sadly the casting of the main character (which is often the most important) has proved be a serious misjudgement, and if we cannot engage with or care about the main character in a film of this genre then it is surely destined to fail.
From a physical point of view it is obvious why Armie Hammer was cast as Maxim de Winter, and he has proved before that he is a great actor with a great, physical screen presence, but his character has no real depth or intrigue, and so he is often just a walking cliché – albeit a very good looking one. However, by far the best thing about Rebecca is Kristen Scott Thomas, who is predictably excellent as Rebecca’s former maid and the one who runs the mansion owned by de Winter. Her character is by far the most interesting in the entire film, and thanks to Wheatley’s direction her character often has a vampiric and predatory quality to her, which also serves as a depressing reminder of how good he can be as a director.
There is of course the classic notion of ‘one for them, one for me’ with film directors, and so hopefully Rebecca is Wheatley’s ‘one for them’ and he will use the money to fund some ‘one for me’ passion project that will blow us all away. Though, considering Netflix’s tendency to let directors do what they want (whether that be Scorsese making a film that is ridiculously long or Michael Bay giving everyone a migraine), that would come as a bit of a surprise here, but who knows what actually went on during the production of Rebecca and whether Wheatley was put under tight reigns to direct a very flat and clunky script. Either way, the result is a film devoid of enough substance to render it anything more than forgettable fluff – Netflix has given us a fair amount of films recently, and Rebecca is only one to watch if you have already exhausted their extensive back catalogue – and cannot sleep.
A film that is made with plenty of competence and style but is predominantly devoid of any actual substance or intrigue. Rebecca is supposed to be a thriller, but it contains very little actual genuine thrills and has to be regarded as a Netflix dud.
At time of writing Rebecca is out in selected UK cinemas and is available to stream on Netflix from October 21st.