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‘Rebecca’ offers stylish gothic thrills

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It takes a lot of chutzpah to remake Alfred Hitchcock.

There are a handful of acknowledged masters in the cinematic realm that pretty much everyone can agree on, filmmakers who are universally acclaimed as the very best at what they do … and Hitchcock is on that list. No one has demonstrated such mastery of the psychological thriller. Even now, nearly 50 years after his last film, he’s the maestro.

His 1940 “Rebecca” – based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name – was his first American project, a film that landed 11 Academy Award nominations and won two, including Hitchcock’s only Best Picture win.

So to tackle a movie that remakes not just any Hitchcock, but one of his best, well … like I said. Chutzpah.

Yet here we are, with Netflix producing a remake of the classic, directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay adaptation by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. And it’s a pretty solid effort, with a talented cast and a suitably sumptuous aesthetic. The biggest strike against it – and it is a big one – is that it was preceded by a legitimate masterpiece.

The story of a young woman who marries into a situation far more complex and shadowy than she ever could have imagined, “Rebecca” is a gothic thriller set against the lush English countryside in the heady days preceding World War II. It is a tale of the darkness within – and the fact that even those closest to us may be keeping secrets.

In the years preceding World War II, a young woman (Lily James, “Yesterday”) is traveling through Europe, serving as the companion to a wealthy older woman named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd, TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”). While staying at a hotel, she crosses paths with the handsome and enigmatic Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, “Wounds”), a widower whose heartbreak has been a topic of much conversation in certain social circles since the drowning death of his wife Rebecca.

Unexpectedly, there’s a bit of a spark between the two. Before long, the connection grows to the point that Max feels ready to move on and proposes marriage. The newly-minted Mrs. de Winter – following a whirlwind European honeymoon – is brought back to the family estate, a palatial manor called Manderley. It is here that she first meets Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas, “Final Set”), the imposing head of the household, a woman who makes very clear her mistrust of and misgivings about Mr. de Winter’s new bride.

As she tries desperately to find ways to fit into this new, foreign world, Mrs. de Winter finds herself constantly confronted by the looming presence of Rebecca. In the eyes of seemingly everyone, she simply doesn’t measure up to the memory of her perfect predecessor. However, as she spends more time at Manderley, she begins to realize that there might be much more to the story than anyone understands. But in dealing with Maxim’s anger and Mrs. Danvers’ disdain, she’s not at all sure who she can talk to about any of this … or who might believe her if she did.

“Rebecca” is a classic gothic thriller, the kind of unsettling quasi-ghost story that allows for some wonderfully atmospheric filmmaking. Director Wheatley and this talented cast do manage to evoke a lot of that sinister tone, the truth is that tales like this are best told with a good deal of subtlety – a quality that this incarnation of the story largely lacks.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good movie. Wheatley does a great job of crafting a visually stunning film, finding ways to juxtapose light and dark in a manner that is unwaveringly engaging to the eye. Aesthetically, it’s definitely a win. Unfortunately, the lack of nuance undercuts the suspense of the narrative somewhat, resulting in a film that is somewhat less abstract and more concrete than one might hope for from a movie such as this.

It should also be noted that the performances are generally quite strong. Lily James is wonderful as the new Mrs. de Winter; she’s long shown an ability to wield her physical delicacy as a weapon and is unafraid to do so here. She’s quiet and demure – right up until she isn’t. She’s a treat to watch throughout. Armie Hammer is a great fit here; he has always carried an Old Hollywood vibe and this is an ideal project to utilize that energy. He’s a perfect leading man for this sort of story, combining movie star looks with an underrated commitment to craftsmanship. And Kristin Scott Thomas – who is always excellent – is particularly good here, embodying the darker side of a certain brand of stiff-upper-lip attitude. It’s an outstanding turn from an outstanding actor.

The rest of the ensemble gets it done as well. Dowd is a hoot as Mrs. Van Hopper. Tom Goodman-Hill as Frank Crawley, Sam Riley as Jack Favell, Ben Crompton as Ben … on and on. It’s a great collection of talented performers who do well to take advantage of every scene in which they appear.

Again – this is a perfectly good movie, with an impressive aesthetic and quality performances. It just doesn’t match the masterpiece that preceded it. Nor does it put forward anything particularly new as far as interpretation or presentation. This “Rebecca” is absolutely worth watching – just don’t expect something that eclipses Hitchcock and you’ll be fine.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 26 October 2020 08:52

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