Rebecca through the decades as classic Du Maurier noir novel and in the cinema

Joe Morgenstern is the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic at the Wall Street Journal. After reading his review of the latest adaption of Rebecca I sent him the following.

I have been reading your reviews for years. They are generally excellent.

Re Rebecca. I first read the book. My daughter gave it to me.  Great read.

Next watched the Hitchcock 1940 adaption.

Now I am watching the Netflix version you reviewed October 22.

I agree the competition, Du Maurier and Hitchcock, is tough.

Still, I like it.  This is 2020. 

Not 1938 when Daphne Du Maurier wrote the story.

Not 1940 when the Hitchcock movie was released to great acclaim.

The latest version fits in with the times. I like the cinemaphotography, the soundtrack, the cast, the costumes.

And, as usual, Kristin Scott Thomas is stellar.

I think the review was a bit tougher than necessary. 

Wall Street Journal – Joe Morgenstern 10.22.2020

Who could have guessed that the film with a modern perspective on gender politics was the one made 80 years ago?

When a studio announces plans to remake a beloved Hollywood classic, it’s tempting to guess what they’re going to do with it. In the case of “Rebecca,” a 1940 Alfred Hitchcock drama starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, the remake wasn’t produced by a conventional studio but by Netflix, the streaming giant that sometimes threatens to replace Hollywood. Still, anyone who knows the Hitchcock film might have made the same guesses that I did when I first heard the news. And we would have been right in the obvious ways, but hard put to imagine how unlovable the Netflix version would be, and how it would handle, or, rather, mishandle the essential element of feminism that was implicit in the original.

Alfred Hitchcock 11.30.2020.jpg

Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut

The earlier film, which won an Oscar for best picture, was an adaptation—or “picturization,” as the opening credits quaintly put it—of a bestselling Daphne du Maurier novel. The production attained classic status because the director was already a master of his medium, the performances were exceptional and the story was appealing, even though Hitchcock wasn’t a great fan of his own creation. He had butted heads with the producer, David O. Selznick; found Olivier troublesome to work with; felt the screenplay lacked humor; and, as he confided to François Truffaut, didn’t consider the end result a Hitchcock picture. All the same, audiences loved it for its gothic romance in which an unnamed young woman is swept off her feet by an older and extremely wealthy widower, then grows obsessed with his late wife, the Rebecca of the title, whose memory haunts her husband and blights their new marriage.

Rebecca III 11.30.2020.jpg

In the remake, directed by Ben Wheatley, the action begins, as before, in Monte Carlo, where the heroine (Lily James) meets her husband-to-be, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), in a luxurious hotel. Ardent and naïve, she’s the paid companion of an unpleasant American dowager. Dashing but moody, he’s enchanted by her beauty and bright spirit, and proposes to her on the spot. Predictably, the opulence quotient has been redoubled, at the very least. Monte Carlo glitters as it didn’t before, and in color, of course, as photographed by Laurie Rose, rather than the black and white of the old production, which looked to be lower-budget than it was. Maxim’s modest MG roadster has accordingly been upgraded to a gleaming 3.5-liter Bentley convertible that is better at holding the camera, if not the road, as it zips along the Grande Corniche.

Just as predictably, Maxim’s estate in England, Manderley, has become superstately, though what’s lost amid the vast rooms and long halls swarming with a huge staff is the fogbound mystery of the place as it was visualized in the Hitchcock version. And what was once, in the days of the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code, a delicately implied lesbian relationship between Rebecca and the menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is now clearly stated and yearningly recalled. That’s a gain, and all the more so since Mrs. Danvers, the pivotal character originally played by an almost impassive Judith Anderson, is now played by the excellent Kristin Scott Thomas. With help from the screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, Ms. Scott Thomas makes Danvers as sympathetic as the housekeeper’s implacable hostility to the new Mrs. De Winter will allow.

The Netflix film’s notable losses, however, flow from parallel power failures, neither of them impacting Manderley’s lights or overstocked refrigerators. The first one involves an almost total absence of electricity between Maxim and his young wife. However difficult Laurence Olivier may have been in the eyes of his director, he was brilliant onscreen; Maxim’s torment and charm were intense in equal measure. Joan Fontaine’s hallmark was haunted vulnerability, but she brought stirring strength to the role as her character gained confidence and maturity. Both Ms. James and Mr. Hammer are skilled performers, as well as attractive ones, and they go through the motions of a passionate love affair, but any passion between them is indicated rather than felt.

The second failure turns on a power relationship at the center of the plot. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is pivotal because, in her isolation and jealousy, she makes Maxim’s new wife so miserable that there’s no possibility of the latter saving herself, let alone her marriage—until she finds the courage to assert her place in the household and in Maxim’s life. Her turning point in the Hitchcock film comes when Danvers has been rattling on about what Mrs. De Winter—meaning Rebecca—would or wouldn’t have done. “I’m Mrs. De Winter now!” the heroine declares, and a new chapter in her life begins.

It’s a classic line that bespeaks a feminist position long before feminism found its full voice, but there’s no trace of it in the remake. Instead of growing from a sweet young thing into a strong woman who is Maxim’s equal, this bride stays scared and vulnerable until close to the end, when the script turns her implausibly into a sort of Nancy Drew doing detective work for the husband she adores.