Rebecca (2020)

Dir. Ben Wheatley. Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas

Few scenes have stayed with me so viscerally as one from A Field in England where, playing out in monstrous slow-motion, a scholar with his mind ravaged by some magical power emerges as a diving rod, eyes wild, tongue out, rope affixed to him. It is strange, strange in a way that can never be adequately put into words, and the visual strangeness of it makes that sequence remarkable. There are little touches of that strangeness which Wheatley is so adroit with in Rebecca, although not all of them come off. One admires, say, that rapid cut between the second Mrs. de Winter’s (James) open mouth and a spray of fireworks that seems to erupt from it, without necessarily finding it incisive; so too is a single eyeball peering into Max’s (Hammer) cell. More effective is the antediluvian diving gear worn by some technician assisting in the recovery of Rebecca’s boat has that strangeness to it. It is more than just some antiquated costume in Wheatley’s camera; it is like an entirely different kind of being altogether, a bizarre courtier from the ocean deep where it might have served Rebecca’s fishpecked corpse for months. At the dinner party where MDW2 must wear a plain frock rather than the elaborate outfit that’s gotten her shouted out on her way down the stairs, we watch her surrounded by a strangely costumed bunch, a group that knows her not at all and which, in her state, seem threatening: there’s something of Freaks in that shot, but without the kindness that that group of misfits intended to emanate.

Most effective of all is MDW2’s view of a flock of birds swirling above the boathouse, perhaps closer than anyone then knew to her body. It is clearly not a real flock of birds, and that’s part of what makes the image especially effective; we have entered this uncanny valley where the birds are only partway real and so their already strangely attuned motion is less like the motion of multiple birds in flight but the consciousness of some hive mind which powers them. It is an eerie moment, and a great image. On the other hand, this is completely ineffective when the same swirl in the same unnatural shape appears above the house, providing an answer to something which ought to be numinous and unknowable. It’s so ineffective that one wonders if Wheatley knew just what he had with it the first time; there’s a straightforwardness to that second usage of it that reflects the familiarity of motifs in fiction more than the fear that would be sparked in seeing an apparition a second time.

Perhaps this, more than anything else, is the trouble with the metafictional aspect of this movie which remakes an established classic from an old master. Too many wits have already noted that the second Rebecca is like the second Mrs. de Winter in terms of inadequacy (a commonality which rather casts aspersions on the presumed wittiness of the idea), but there’s something more here. It is the story of Rebecca which gives her a status more like an urban legend or the way that Gen Xers talk about Michael Jordan than that of a flesh-and-blood woman. There’s a response to the way these stories are supposed to go in Rebecca as well, down to those ominous Hitchcockian birds, but I don’t know that it’s any more fleshed out than Rebecca’s body is. The stories of Rebecca are potent ones for MDW2 to compete against, but one gets the sense of embarrassment rather than despair, of occasional desperate laments as opposed to soul-crushing despondency. When Mrs. Danvers (Scott Thomas) tries to talk MDW2 out of a window, that story she tells her of not hurting so much, not making a difference, etc., feels stale not because I’d seen it in a movie that’s eighty years old, but because I’d seen it in dozens of movies and books before this one. It is one thing to be unable to break free from a movie that everyone is very intent on telling you they’ve seen and loved for years now. It is quite another to feel sucked into a trope that goes back at least as far as Satan’s temptation of Jesus. On the other hand, updates on the last movie are not in and of themselves improvements either. The resolution of the story in this Rebecca turns MDW2 into something of a girlboss, sneaking around a doctor’s office and getting the information she needs before ultimately sending her to a steamy tryst with her man to an African Orient. It’s a choice which would feel a little strange regardless of whether or not it had appeared in previous versions of the story; so much of Rebecca is about the protagonist’s helplessness that making her the dynamo who sets things “right” feels like too abrupt a shift.

I don’t know that I want to blame the actors all that much for the material not feeling richer given my general sense that the movie isn’t entirely in command of its story or its images. None of the three key performers here between James, Hammer, and Scott Thomas ever kick this into a higher gear. I buy all three of them in those parts, but there’s something hushed about each of those performances which feels less like that British repression and more like plain understatement. Hammer is handsome, but in his hands Maxim is snippy rather than foreboding. (I don’t mind the snippy version of him, but watching Rebecca get pummeled down by passive aggression, again, feels a little less potent than watching her get pummeled down by pure condescension.) Scott Thomas flutters a little more than can sustain the iron part she’s playing, most of all when she’s reminiscing about what Rebecca would ask “Danny” to do. (Someone else can, and should, and has gotten into the trouble of taking queer characters and speaking their queerness aloud rather than making their identities subtextual, which of course is the reverse trouble of having to make these people subtext at all.) And then there’s James, who I think is adequate most of the time in an unforgiving role; MDW2 must be basically invisible, but then again she still must own the screen enough to keep our interest, to shine a light on what’s wrong in the unflappable, heady universe of Manderley. James is not bad at being someone who keeps stepping in cowpies, but that falls short of believing her as someone who is being humiliated over and over again as opposed to someone who needs to stick her boot under a hose.

It’s why the two key supporting performances—Sam Riley’s Jack Favell and Ann Dowd’s Mrs. Van Hopper—shine more than any of the three central ones. Dowd does not have a particularly challenging role, but she fills the alternately sickly and venomous character with sickness and venom, and her farewell rebuke of her onetime companion (You’ll never be the lady of Manderley, Rebecca Rebecca Rebecca, etc.) is an effective transition. Riley is maybe the best of the bunch in this movie, and, let it not be said too loudly lest I get told to go upstairs and change, but he might even be an improvement on George Sanders’ approach to the character. He is a much seedier individual, with a skinny little mustache and a reedy voice rather than Sanders’ deep and iconic baritone; there is no real implication that he has any more class than he can wear in his nice clothes or put on with an exhibition of horseback riding. Favell the character is, to borrow a phrase from Lane Harris, “a grimy little pimp,” and with apologies to the perfectly good-looking Sam Riley and with compliments to the costume and makeup teams, that’s exactly how Riley’s Favell comes off.

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