By Andrea Thompson
Some films lack means. Others lack imagination.
Or at least the 2020 version of “Rebecca” does, a film so uninspired Daphne Du Maurier must be turning in her grave, and Hitchcock must be groaning under a new torment in whatever version of hell he’s in now. (Look it up.)
The latest version may not be a remake of Hitchcock’s 1940 film, which has and will remain the most iconic adaptation of Du Maurier’s novel, but comparisons are a given due to its time-tested staying power. The 2020 “Rebecca” may resemble its most famous on-screen predecessor in terms of plot, but there’s almost nothing resembling its imaginative exploration of darker, deeper, themes. What it does resemble is what has quickly become a genre unto itself, and that is the typical Disney live-action remake, which tends to rehash material while sanding down any rough edges, typically the ones involving character.
I actually checked the IMDB page to be sure, because this “Rebecca” is a toothless one indeed, with even the baffling plot conveniences failing to make much of an impression. It can’t be blamed on any of the actors, since most of the cast has enough stellar performances between them to prove they can and have done far better.
So don’t blame Lily James, the new Mrs. de Winter, by any means. Watch “Little Woods” instead. It also happens to be the feature directorial debut of Nia DaCosta, who has gone on to helm the new “Candyman” and the upcoming “Captain Marvel II.” DaCosta got terrific work from James in her first, criminally underrated film, certainly enough to quell any doubts about James’s skills as an actress in spite of Hollywood’s continued insistence on her playing the lovestruck ingénue.
But it’s back to big budget films for James, and in “Rebecca” she’s as dull as dishwater, playing the same damn role that was tired from the start and should be long exhausted by now – the young, free spirit who finds herself stifled and outright teased by the women around her just for being (gasp!) different! And constantly reminded by her own unimportance, even having to suffer from the indignity of being considered a member of the hotel staff rather than a guest.
Such banality leaves no room for the truly unexpected, so when James meets her wealthy future husband Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who’s still coming to grips with the death of his first wife Rebecca, it’s in a charming meet cute that’s reminiscent of an even less sexy “50 Shades of Grey,” certainly not while interrupting his attempted suicide. And James is only emotionally vulnerable, with no signs of being the type of person with no family or resources, who could easily vanish if she came across just the wrong sort of person.
No, we’re reassured from the beginning that this is one married couple who will meet each other at the end of the tunnel, even when her husband keeps her at an emotional and physical distance if she asserts herself in any way. Especially when she asks perfectly reasonable questions about Rebecca, whose presence lingers throughout her new home, the gorgeous estate of Manderley, months after death, and whom the icy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) remains disturbingly devoted to.
Mrs. Danvers may be a one-note villain again, but it’s hard to blame her for failing to take to the new mistress of the house, who evokes pity rather than sympathy as she passively goes from one emotional conflict to the next, only taking action when her husband is suspected of murder. By that point, Maxim has revealed himself to be so profoundly repulsive that any investment is from curiosity rather than any real anxiety about his fate. With a romance so devoid of passion and anything worth investing in, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester might start to look like couple goals. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The fact is, there is a great love story here, one which many previous adaptations dared not speak of, the passionate friendship(?) between the deceased Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, two deeply complicated women who are far more interesting than their oblivious blonde counterparts, who don’t do much except blend perfectly into whatever sumptuous location they happen to find themselves in. Audiences are ready, but the film doesn’t appear to be, lazily adding yet another entry to the depressingly ongoing “Bury Your Gays” trope rather than delving into any female character who risks being anything approaching unlikable.
If blame can be placed anywhere (and goddamn it I want to place it somewhere), my bets are on writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, who also penned the abysmally misguided “The Aftermath,” rather than Jane Goldman, who has a far better track record, particularly when she’s left more to her own devices. Certainly the source material deserved to at least be a spectacular failure rather than another example of modern mediocrity, but at least we’ll always have the 1940 version, which does a better job of implying what this movie refuses to even consider.