October 28, 2020

Film

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

By Tali Lavi

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter. Image © Kerry Brown / Netflix

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the novel’s nuance

Daphne du Maurier’s famed gothic novel Rebecca has beguiled readers since its publication in 1938. Saturated with taut atmospherics, the book reads as a strange fever dream populated by the ghost of a dead wife, a madwoman in the attic, a sunken ship, a body resurfacing from the sea’s depths, a masquerade ball, a suspected pregnancy, an inquest, a fire and more. And, still, I have given away nothing. The novel successfully and knowingly embraces melodrama, as do its most successful adaptations, among them Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 mix of broodiness and high camp, which starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.

The narrator is a forlorn English woman haplessly working as a lady’s companion in the Côte d’Azur when she meets an older and somewhat moody widower, Maxim de Winter. After a hasty marriage, they resume their life together in Manderley, his house in Cornwall, replete with ghost and madwoman.

The narrator’s first name, unlike her thoughts, is obscured to us. We know her only by the name she is given by others: Mrs de Winter. It is an ill-fitting one. At the mercy of the wealthy woman who employs her, she is treated with disdain by the servants around her, that is, before being rescued by marriage. In the story’s circular framing device, her older self remembers her youthful iteration as possessing “a rather desperate gaucherie … filled with an intense desire to please”. It is as if she is a half-formed being; self-doubt plagues her, hollowing her out so that the dybbuk of Rebecca, the fabled first wife, can enter her.

It could not be Rebecca without its resonant opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” In Ben Wheatley’s new film adaptation, streaming on Netflix, it is spoken by Lily James (Yesterday, War & Peace), and she does so as if these words are the glass slipper she effortlessly fit into in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. James plays the role of ingenue well. After meeting Maxim, the narrator’s brown woollen suit is cast off for prettier clothes, among them a cardigan that looks suspiciously like Chanel. This being the resplendent production that it is, truth is in service to beauty.

Adaptations cannot be strictly faithful to their literary antecedents, nor should they be. Anthony Minghella, the writer and director of several masterful adaptations including The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley, often referred to Italo Calvino’s claim about storytelling: “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.” Minghella believed that “the screenplay is both an argument with the source material and a commentary on it”. The development of the second Mrs de Winter’s character in Wheatley’s adaptation is both a dramatic departure and a predictable response to the problematic, listless narrator of the novel. Screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse might as well have gifted her with a first name along with the gumption and impulsiveness they attribute to her. Presumably, this was their “argument” against her lack of agency, something unpalatable to contemporary female audiences, particularly ones who might be unfamiliar with the novel and its ambiguities.

And so, moments after convincingly appearing as a trapped, impecunious young woman, she is ordering oysters for breakfast on the hotel’s opulent terrace, confessing to Armie Hammer’s Maxim: “I’ve always wanted to try them.” Soon enough, it appears, oysters are not the only thing for which she possesses a healthy appetite.

With his mustard-coloured suits and his debonair charm, Hammer’s younger-than-usual Maxim does not have the brooding presence of other iterations. Charm being a quality the actor has previously mastered (On the Basis of Sex, Call Me By Your Name). In case you don’t register the casting clues, a recent GQ magazine profile professed Hammer’s as a “face that could ruin a nun’s conscience”. Not being a nun myself, I could not state whether this claim is entirely true.

Another cinematic moment passes and we might be watching a remake of To Catch a Thief, another Hitchcock adaptation where the Côte d’Azur features as the glittering backdrop. The film’s early scenes wear a light sexiness and revel in the heady courtship of the two lovers, unrecognisable from their literary predecessors. Maxim worryingly avoids all questions about his previous wife, but reassuringly encourages his prospective wife to drive his splendid car.

As the newlyweds drive towards Manderley, the seasons change. Gone is the summery golden light in which the lovers frolicked. In its place, a sedate pearlescent beauty takes hold; the dove-grey sky blends into sea. The way to Manderley, a house described to its new lady as “one of the finest homes in England”, is lined with green hills. Trepidation is writ large on the second Mrs de Winter’s brow as she spies the magisterial Tudor estate, with staff lined up on the lawn (class is a recurring theme and there are flashes of Upstairs Downstairs). But she cannot yet see the house’s other haunting presence, a disapproving figure looking out from the dusky interior. Kristin Scott Thomas is the finest, most elegant, Mrs Danvers one has ever seen, as sleekly and darkly clad as a raven, and as prefiguring of doom. As the now ebullient Maxim swings his wife over his shoulder to cross the threshold, the checkerboard tiles of the entrance signal the commencement of a game. The newcomer may not be aware of its existence or its rules, but Mrs Danvers is a master player.

What ensues in the second act is the dissolution of Mrs de Winter the second by spectres and alienation. Laurie Rose’s cinematography spectacularly captures the Cornwall coast’s harsh and terrible beauty - a description that equally applies to Rebecca - and Manderley’s refinement and stultification. Wheatley has dealt in the eerie before, having directed a terrifying version of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise. His Rebecca is not of the same ilk; it is airbrushed horror. Strangeness and dreams take over, as do portentous signs: a flock of birds looks like a plume of ash, and Maxim’s grandmother calls out in distress, “What have you done with Rebecca?” There are no sightings of the novel’s blood-red rhododendrons, but Mrs Danvers’ vermillion lipstick might speak of both death and desire.

Various dark psycho-sexual obsessions abound here, with the dead Mrs de Winter their object. Rebecca is a hall of mirrors all steamed up - and not merely from its erotic charge - preventing the narrator and the audience from grasping the truth. The film’s most successfully disturbing scenes take place in the mirrored antechamber and in Rebecca’s elegant preserved bedroom.

At the heart of the novel sits the decadence of nature gone rank. Women manifest this rankness as expressed sexuality or an unfettered sexuality. And yet, as explored by critics including Olivia Laing, the novelist herself experienced a complex relationship with gender. Wheatley’s version seeks to redress this discomfort around both living de Winters by rewriting the story. Mrs the Second transforms into a familiar rendition of a politician’s steely wife. Mrs Danvers is employed as a mouthpiece for voicing our reservations about violence and women. But unlike former prime minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, which successfully found its target, the words’ effects are blunted by their messenger, who is faithfully portrayed as a madwoman.

A guilty pleasure, this Rebecca is as lush as a calla lily on the cusp of decay, rendered scentless by the divestment of the novel’s ambiguity. The surprise of it all was an ending that provoked laughter, a manifestation of my disbelief. But then, perhaps this too is in keeping with the classic melodrama.

Tali Lavi

Tali Lavi is a writer, critic and public interviewer whose work has appeared in Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books and The Melbourne Review.

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