Review – Rebecca (2020)

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Overview

Synopsis When a young woman falls in love with a rich English millionaire, she finds herself competing for his attention with his presumably dead ex-wife, Rebecca.

Length 2 Hours and 1 Minute

Release Date October 16th, 2020 (UK), October 21st, 2020 (US)

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Netflix

Directing Ben Wheatley

Writing Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse. Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier

Composition Clint Mansell

Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas

Netflix’s new adaptation of the classic novel/film Rebecca has caught a fair bit of attention as well as a fair bit of flack in the last month. Despite being based on one of the most popular gothic thrillers of the 20th century, the new film adaptation seems to have missed any of the greater depths of the novel in favor of lurid romanticism and sex appeal. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Nothing graphic is depicted.
Language/Crude Humor: Taking God’s name in vain once. 
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual drinking and smoking.
Sexual Content: Partial nudity and sex scenes, innuendo and references to sex in the plot.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Themes of suicide, hatred and murder. 
Positive Content: Themes of love, redemption and truth.

Review

There’s something rather lurid about Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. The gothic romance novel was one of the most popular of its century but its story is so melodramatic and dark that it can’t help but feel a bit exploitational. Even its setup feels like a strange melding of a Jane Austen romantic novel and a Twilight book. We’re introduced to a young middle-class woman who is swept up off her feet by a rich man whom she discovers is haunted by the death of his first wife, Rebecca. In order to win his affection, she finds herself investigating her death and trying to exonerate him.

It’s a pulpy tale of love, death, sex, murder, betrayal and hatred that sweeps the reader of their feet into this world of critically acclaimed intrigue. That said, I can’t speak to the literary feats of the novel itself though. I’ve only seen its two film adaptations.

The first one in 1940 was a major milestone in film history. It was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s breakout Hollywood films AND it was David Selznick’s follow-up, as a producer, to Gone With the Wind. That above all is what makes the film feel so dark and sleazy. Both of those two movies are romance films based on popular 1930s novels, but their approach to story, character and tone are such wildly different that it’s shocking to imagine they were released within four months of one another by the same producer.

That said, this story is almost completely appropriate for Alfred Hitchcock. You can really sense the dramatist and schlockmeister who would make Psycho and Vertigo slowly brewing in the edges of this film.  

The newest adaptation comes to us from director Ben Wheatley (High Rise, Free Fire) and Netflix who released the film in late October. I do not know what the calculation on releasing a modern retelling of a story that was already adapted in such a critically acclaimed film is, but stranger things have happened (see also: the time CBS made a TV sequel to Gone With the Wind). 

The story is pretty much a beat-for-beat retelling of the first film with minor differences. We still have our unnamed female protagonist working in a menial and abusive job, only to be swept off of her feet and fall in love with this emotionally damaged eccentric millionaire. We still deal with the mystery of Rebecca’s disappearance. We still deal with the intrigue of Maxim’s complicated relationship with his ex-wife and the fear that he might have murdered her. 

Most of the differences are primarily superficial. As such, I’m not exactly sure what it is Ben Wheatley or his team saw in the material they wanted to highlight and expand upon. For the most part, Rebecca feels like a more diluted version of an already diluted literary adaptation. I’m sure the book is a great deal richer than either version we’ve seen on screen but the second adaptation feels a great deal less thought out. It’s mostly going through the motions and major sequences of the story with the advent of modern technology. 

Certainly, there is at least something to be said for that. If Netflix was hoping they could turn this into an Oscar-contender for this year, they will be sorely mistaken to realize there isn’t enough life in this film to accomplish that. There is something to be said for a movie that just wants to take the basic framework and inject some modern TNA onto your streaming lists for free. 

I know a handful of friends that were legitimately excited about this film and I can understand why. The story’s setup and romance lines up with a very modern set of romantic tropes in popular fiction, wherein average middle-class women are swept off their feet by rich men with dark pasts whom only the woman can save through her love and loyalty. 

Thus it’s casting of Lily James and Armie Hammer. Both of these actors are at the top of their respective careers coming off of recent projects like Baby Driver, Downton Abbey and Call Me By Your Name. You can almost sense the romantic tension of putting such huge and attractive Hollywood stars at the helm of such an indulgent retelling of a classic novel without even seeing the film. I can imagine this was half of the film’s appeal to Netflix and its core audience right off the bat. 

If you’re just in the market for a free romance thriller to watch on Netflix, you can do a lot worse than the new version of Rebecca. What it lacks in style or execution, it makes up for in solid performances and pure indulgence. I can imagine there would be a huge audience for a film like this from romantic comedy fans looking for the feeling of being swept off your feet by a dark handsome stranger with a checkered past. It’s mostly painless and I don’t quite have the acrimony to be mad at a film like this, unlike some other films that have slacked off lately. 

Positives

+ Solid performances by James and Hammer.
+ Visually pleasant cinematography.

Negatives

- Diluted story.
- Adds little to its prior renditions.
- Neutered PG-13 rating.

The Bottom Line

It's unclear who Rebecca is being made for. Fans of the book or Hitchcock film will find themselves wanting more, but romantic junkies looking for a quick fix could do worse than streaming this for free on Netflix!

 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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