It’s a bold director that takes on Alfred Hitchcock. This said a surprising number have tried although they rarely use the same titles, perhaps because this might be too presumptuous. Brian DePalma often and proudly homaged Hitchcock but goes furthest with his film Obsession which is essentially a remake of Vertigo. Then there is D.J Caruso’s Disturbia which wears its strong debt to Rear Window on its sleeve (or its ankle). The Jodie Foster film Flightplan restages the The Lady Vanishes, as unsurprisingly does the Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd movie The Lady Vanishes. Andrew Davis’ The Perfect Murder changes some characterisation but barely a single plot point from Dial M for Murder, and John Woo’s Mission Impossible 2 is to all intents and purposes a new version of Notorious. Those that have used the same name for their follow up movie always fall back on the idea that it is just another adaptation of the original book, as with 1959’s The 39 Steps and 2009’s The Lodger but it doesn’t remove the comparison. Then of course, there is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho which reuses the title, the script, the framing, the editing and the timings of Hitchcock’s classic, the apparent gall of which has plagued Van Sant ever since. To be fair, some of these movies are pretty good but not one of them is a touch on what Hitchcock did with the same material.
This new film has more to live up to though because as well as it being a bold director who takes on Hitchcock, it is also a bold actor that takes on Laurence Olivier. The man is considered one of England’s greatest ever actors and for good reason. Olivier had an intensity and precision on screen that easily matches Daniel Day Lewis or anyone else working today and there aren’t many others that compare. Reputation has it that it all came quite naturally to him too. There’s a story that when he saw how deep Dustin Hoffman was going into his method when they appeared together in Marathon Man, his advice to his costar was ‘you could just try acting, my dear’. Being active from 1926 to 1989 he also had a long and varied career. Again, there have been those to take on roles Olivier is famous for, mostly established literary heroes as is the case here rather than characters he created, and they are all big names in their own right. Ralph Fiennes, another particularly focused actor, has played Heathcliff. Michael Caine repeated Olivier’s part in Sleuth but had the advantage of playing opposite Olivier when he originally played it so he’d studied the performance first hand. Kenneth Branagh to some extent has styled himself on Olivier, following his famous essaying of Henry V and Hamlet and playing the man himself in My Week with Marilyn. Liam Neeson had a go at one of Olivier’s roles too although I’m not sure Zeus in Clash of the Titans is one of his most iconic performances.
Ben Wheatley and Armie Hammer, who have stepped up with Rebecca, have both done really impressive work before but neither are household names, so the question is, in light of this story’s Hollywood pedigree, have they bitten off more than they can chew?
Well no, absolutely not. Neither of them are better artists than Hitchcock or Olivier or would claim to be but together they have created a wonderful new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s famous book.
Sure, it was a bold move but as anyone who has seen Kill List, A Field in England, High Rise, Sightseers, Down Terrace or Free Fire will know, Ben Wheatley is most certainly a bold director. Rebecca might seem like a surprising choice for the man behind such dark and violent films, it seems to be more Midsomar Murders than Midsommar, but he has brought the nightmare element out of the source material about a new bride living in the shadow of her husband’s first late wife and put his stamp on it as much as Hitchcock did.
The thing about the 1940 Rebecca is that it’s not truly classic Hitchcock. That doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant, and actually watching a new version really highlights how Hitchcock, even working as a Hollywood hire for the first and possibly only time, really upped the suspense. There are parts of the film that stand to be improved though, at least for a contemporary audience. I’ll come to those in a second.
The most Wheatley moment in his Rebecca is a dream sequence midway through where nature consumes the new Mrs. de Winter. It is very pagan in a way we’ve seen from Wheatley before. He also plays up the idea of perceptions of the supernatural and our ability to create ghosts where they are nonexistent which has been a theme for him before. This in particular is what you suspect his sensibilities have laid over Jane Goldman’s screenplay.
Armie Hammer is good too. He certainly doesn’t have an ounce of Olivier’s menace and does not carry the weight of regret as heavily or is not as able to show the same unpredictable balance between the two sides of his character. It doesn’t matter though because this is not his film.
Joan Fontaine was the protagonist of Hitchcock’s film but it was Olivier’s movie. This one belongs to Lily James though, she is its heart and is a much stronger centre to everything than her predecessor. As written by Goldman she has the same inexperience but is not as mousey, fragile or passive, or indeed as clumsy. Right from the start she seems more in control of her whirlwind romance and makes a more conscious decision regarding her marriage. In fact there is one moment where the story seems to be deliberately tackling one of the problems of Hitchcock’s movie.
In the 1940 film there are lengthy scenes of the central courting couple going out on drives with her sitting in the passenger seat as he constantly dominates her with belittling and chauvinist terms such as ‘silly girl’ and ‘child’ and seems to enjoy, or at least expect, her subservience. They are certainly not an equal pair. In this film though something very significant happens. He throws her the car keys. She may not always know or like where the road is taking her but she takes the driving seat early on and stays in it for the rest of the narrative.
The script retains the line ‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool’ but generally the outdated misogyny is thankfully gone. James’ heroine definitely takes significant action at the end and on more than one occasion she stands up to the domineering Mrs. Danvers.
Kristen Scott Thomas is less one dimensional as the book’s famous intimidating housekeeper as when she was played by Judith Anderson as well but I’m not going to criticise that portrayal as it was right for that film. You’d think Scott Thomas might steal the movie in this role but she doesn’t because another thing Wheatley is good at is balanced ensembles.
The precise ending of this story has been played around with several times what with the book, the play that du Maurier penned herself, this film, that film and various TV and radio adaptations, and here Hitchcock really does still win, although the Hays Motion Picture Production Code forced his hand with the exact nature of Maxim de Winter’s role in his first wife’s demise. Apart from anything else his denouement had the sublime George Sanders in it and he really is someone it is impossible to live up to. Wheatley still makes some interesting choices here though.
Taken as a whole and judged on its own merits, this is a really enjoyable film. For a story that is all about trying to follow the much respected thing that came before, it more than rises to that same challenge.