Ben Wheatley revisited: Rebecca (2020)

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In 2020, Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca was released as a Netflix exclusive – we take a closer look at the director’s take on the Daphne du Maurier classic, which was also adapted by none-other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Credit to Ben Wheatley for his ambition with Rebecca, adapting not simply one of the most beguiling mystery novels of the 20th century, but attempting to live up to an adaptation by some might say the greatest director of all time: Alfred Hitchcock.

Eighty years separates the two films, with many versions of the Daphne du Maurier psychological potboiler in between, but cinephiles perhaps best recall Hitchcock’s 1940 version starring Laurence Olivier as the troubled Maxim de Winter, owner of the vast Manderley estate, and Joan Fontaine as his young, unnamed wife known simply as ‘Mrs de Winter’, who steadily comes to realise the spectre of the last Mrs de Winter, the titular Rebecca, haunts Maxim’s life and Manderley – figuratively rather than literally. Though for a long time, I believed Rebecca was an actual ghost story, until reading du Maurier’s source material.

Her book proves a difficult one to adapt, and I’m not even truly convinced Hitchcock quite manages it, heretical as that is to suggest. His picture looks as darkly Gothic and atmospheric as one might expect but Olivier and Fontaine lack the requisite passion visible in du Maurier’s particularly insular, powerfully psychological text, all from the perhaps questionable subjective viewpoint of the new Mrs de Winter, an unreliable narrator. Restrictive codes of the time no doubt put paid in part to a necessary on-screen smoulder, but the book feels the greater culprit. Translating its interiority would challenge any filmmaker.

Enter Wheatley, offered the opportunity by streaming giant Netflix to reimagine the tale for a new generation, as he discusses the effect Rebecca had on him:

“It sounds odd, but it’s a bit like when I realised Robert De Niro was playing all these characters in the 70s. I realised that so many of the films I liked – Don’t Look Now, The Birds, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca – were from stories by du Maurier. Rebecca itself was something I was aware of, and I’d watched the film in my twenties when I’d watched all the Hitchcock films. When I was working with Working Title on another project and they said they had a new adaptation of Rebecca by Jane Goldman, I thought I remembered it. I thought I had a really good, clear idea of what it was. But I read the script, and I didn’t; I was wrong. I fell for all the narrative traps in the story. I talked to other people about it and they didn’t quite remember it either. They said, ‘Oh, it’s so romantic,’ and I was like: ‘Is it?’”

He asks a good question. Rebecca ostensibly suggests a classical, Edwardian-era romance, a May-December love affair between a haunted, charming widower and a keen, beautiful ingenue who falls for the dashing, wealthy man, who in turn scoops her up and makes her his lady of the manor, advancing her station in life. Yet du Maurier’s narrative is a twisted monster of 19th century romantic literature, one in which she casts Max as a dark, destroyed male archetype, his housekeeper Mrs Danvers (played here with camp relish by Kristin Scott-Thomas, stepping in for Judith Anderson in the Hitchcock version) as the vengeful familiar of Rebecca, and the new Mrs de Winter spiralling through the dream, or nightmare, of Manderley. The romance is an illusion.

Wheatley seems to understand this. The opening act, as Armie Hammer’s dapper Maxim is entranced by Lily James’ trapped swan in the sunny climes of Monte Carlo, screams amore. It’s a classical holiday romance. Max sweeps James’ character in his arms and transports her into a dream life. On arrival at Manderley, it very quickly begins to change. Hammer is good at carrying the weight of his world on the shoulders of a man incapable of escaping its ghosts, and James plays the role she’s good at – the cute, middle-class young woman just shy of being the girl next door, tinged with naïveté, yet riven with an equal touch of steel. She is the engine of the film for us, as an audience, allowing us to peer behind the veil and understand Manderley’s history and secrets.

This is perhaps why for a film built around a love affair, Rebecca is a rather sexless film. Wheatley describes Manderley as a ‘bromide’ that destroys intimacy:

“No one has sex, and even Rebecca was having it in a boat house, not in the actual house. There’s guilt that’s destroying it with Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter, though she mistakes it for something else. Was Mrs Danvers in love with or having sex with Rebecca? I mean, I could see some inference of it, but it wasn’t something that, as a part of modernising the book, we wanted to lean right into.”

Lily James and Armie Hammer in Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley

Scott-Thomas certainly infuses Danvers with a powerful sense of passion toward her deceased mistress, a woman she refuses to part with even in death: “She’s still here. Can you feel her? I wonder what she’s thinking about you. Taking her husband and using her name.”

Danvers throws this in Mrs de Winter’s face as James’ character finds it impossible to escape Rebecca’s presence, in the waking world and in dreams. She is warned of this by Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), the imperious, tedious socialite who the woman works for before marrying Max. “He’s only marrying you because he doesn’t want to go on living in that big old house with her ghost!”

You can see why Wheatley would have been attracted to Rebecca and Goldman’s script, even if at first blush it doesn’t precisely track with his previous work. This is glossier than his earlier pictures, driven by a smouldering pair of modern film icons (this was before Hammer’s fall from grace), and a very different adaptation to High-Rise. We’re a long way from Sightseers here! Nonetheless, Rebecca has the propensity for existing on the cusp of something spectral and uncanny. Wheatley drapes Manderley in a haunted glaze. He provides unerring imagery in Mrs de Winter’s dreams, as nature creeps out of the surface to engulf her. It is to some extent a more commercial work but it remains inside Wheatley’s thematic purview.

He talks, indeed, about the design process behind Manderley:

“We set about trying to construct something almost mythical, and Sarah Greenwood, who designed it, I talked to her about the brief being that the de Winter family itself would have had tithed land after the Norman invasion. It would have been like a small house with some land around it. And then over the generations, this family will have grown in power and strength and money, and become colonialists, sacking other cultures, bringing money back to England. The house would be getting bigger and bigger. So the middle of it is like a Tudor house with wooden doors but as it got bigger, it became grander. All the architectural styles don’t necessarily match, which is true of a lot of these places.”

We’ve discussed across Wheatley’s work his penchant for the confined space, trapping his characters, whether the field in A Field In England or the warehouse in Free Fire. He might have used an old country estate in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, but here Manderley is the ultimate expression of outward grandeur concealing compressed inner demons. Though the characters here are trapped by Rebecca, no one escapes Manderley, even Rebecca herself.

It proves to be the perfect setting for Wheatley to draw out recurring character tropes. Max, for one, exists clearly inside the lexicon of toxic male figures Wheatley’s films are festooned with. He is brooding, controlling and ultimately murderous. And he’s also a coward, as he later admits. “You didn’t know her. Nobody did,” he says of Rebecca, who remains a devilish enigma throughout. Wheatley has always been interested in the obsessive and possessive nature of men. We can see it across his work, and those aspects feel acute when it comes to Rebecca as a tale. Du Maurier’s story might suggest Danvers as the villain of the piece, but Rebecca is the malignancy who corrupts both she and Max, with the new Mrs de Winter a victim of their obsession.

Rebecca turned out to be the first major picture Wheatley made that audiences were lukewarm over. Comparisons to the Hitchcock original and the beloved novel abounded. He was, perhaps, on a hiding to nothing having a run at such well-trod material, a story on which many have an opinion and is open to such subjectivity. For me, Wheatley’s Rebecca is dark, brooding and expressive, skirting the fringes of the ‘weird Albion’ textual framework that fills many of his earlier films, and he will return to for his next, In the Earth. It is a bit frigid but that’s almost the point, as discussed above. Nor really is it Wheatley or Goldman’s fault that the narrative becomes a contrived murder mystery in the last half, collapsing in on itself to an extent – that’s all on du Maurier.

Wheatley seems sanguine about the film’s middling reception. He described it, in Total Film, quite wonderfully as a “period Sightseers,” which I find a hugely fun observation. It might be far from that film, as I stated earlier, but equally an unexpected brother in arms.

“You always end up making the same film whatever you try to do,” he added after the fact, and there’s truth to that. Rebecca might not be a perfect adaptation but it is a Ben Wheatley film. No doubt about that. If not, perhaps, quite to the same extent as his next movie.

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