Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which was released in 1940 and won an Oscar for best picture that year. It made a strong and lasting impression on me. In fact, when my husband Larry and I moved into a new home back in the late 1990s, we named it Manderlarry even though our abode was a two-bedroom house and nothing like Manderley, the massive Gothic mansion in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. So you can understand why I was leery of watching Netflix’s new Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley. How does this latest movie version of Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated novel stack up? I will try to give a fair comparison.
First, the casting of Lily James as our shy heroine and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, the wealthy widower she weds, makes sense. They are both quite watchable. They look great together, even more so than Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. However, their chemistry with each other fails to sparkle. And Kristen Scott Thomas evokes chills as the sinister housekeeper. But she doesn’t match 1940’s Judith Anderson for gravitas.
Next, what about the cinematography? This new version goes from bright colorful scenes in Monte Carlo, where the two leads meet and wed, to the dark shadows of the Manderley manor house in England. Not surprisingly, the black-and-white cinematography of 1940’s Rebecca comes across more emotionally effective than the new Rebecca’s muted colors during many scenes there.
Third, splendid period costumes help viewers get a feel for the era in question while watching both movies. But Joan Fontaine’s gorgeous white gown overpowers Lily James’ lovely red one in the crucial ball sequence that ends up as the most memorable scene in both films.
Finally, the compelling plot moves along with a necessary slow pace allowing viewers time to realize the late Rebecca’s tremendous influence over Manderley and how that makes the second wife feel diminished in each offering. Too bad the last part of the film seems rushed in both versions. The 2020 Rebecca footage looks almost like it should be in a different motion picture entirely. And it packs too much into the mix.
Of Manderley a dream creeps in.
She sees that mansion once again.
A place where she feels unwanted
She’s quite ashamed to be a dud.
Why should she feel so bad this way?
Husband’s first wife might still hold sway.
Although Rebecca died, she seems
always there with ghostly schemes.
Could it be housekeeper Danvers?
She’s filled with hate and maybe worse.
Rebecca left a legacy.
It’s one that reeks of mystery.
Hitchcock’s version wins out, I claim.
The master still retains his fame.
Yet this new movie should be seen.
What a story! It’s always keen.
(Released by Netflix and rated “PG-13” by MPAA.)