Rebecca Doesn't Answer The Most Fundamental Question
The question is always the same. And Ben Wheatley couldn’t answer it.
The question first comes when the announcement arrives, peddling a fresh remake of an age-old film classic. It persists at a low-level in the months to come, spiking upon release of the first theatrical trailer, and finally crescendoing on a film’s opening weekend. It’s asked again and again, project after project, to filmmaker after filmmaker.
Why did you remake one of the greatest films from one of cinema’s most revered filmmakers? Why did you feel the need to redo Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture-winning take on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, Rebecca? Why, simply put, are we all here?
Perhaps it was misguided, but I expected a resounding answer from the British director. After all, with films like Kill List, High-Rise, and Free Fire under his belt, Wheatley always seems to have purpose simmering just below each film, each visual and narrative choice, even if I don’t agree with or particularly care for those choices. His latest, an uninspired remake of the 1940 Rebecca, reflects a man seemingly torn between his own cinematic instincts and the broad shoulders of his legendary forerunner. The expectations don’t just weigh the end result down; they bury it.
The film opens with a burst of horrifying hopefulness - a restaged flash-forward of the disaster at the mononymous Manderley, filmed and scored with a dreadful flair compared to Hitchcock’s work. Wheatley is an avowed acolyte of both modern and postmodern horror, and while the gothic influence on Rebecca is impossible to completely toss aside, it certainly seemed likely that the new version would bring much of the underlying terror to the fore. Alas, though it may have been Wheatley’s initial answer to the question du jour, he failed to fully commit.
Wheatley’s true version threatens to poke its head through at times, but ultimately takes a backseat. It’s as if the director is playing a game of chicken with a genre movie: driving straight toward it until swerving away at the last moment. It’s not the material that jumps out of the way, though, it’s Wheatley. The extended sequence at the revived costume ball in particular shows off what Wheatley can do with the material, evoking the horrors of other-ism and the discomfort of place with a swirling camera and Clint Mansell’s haunting score. It’s the best part of the movie.
But it’s all downhill from there. The narrative itself seems split in two, convinced half the time that the proper title should be Manderley, only to trip over itself in its sudden decision that the ultimate ghost of wives past, Rebecca, is the proper focus after all. Armie Hammer is terribly miscast, full of a bit too much repressed energy, a ball of desultory wit rather than meticulous charm. And though it’s undeniably gorgeous, it becomes difficult enough to keep one’s eyes open long enough to enjoy the beauty. Rebecca is a feast for the eyes, but what’s the point when it tastes so bland?