By Sahir Avik D’souza
Lily James spends much of Rebecca crying. As the protagonist, the unnamed second wife of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), she ends nearly every scene she’s in tears. Yes, the character of the second Mrs de Winter in the book by Daphne du Maurier is a weak-willed and mild young woman, in thrall to her strapping new husband, but it gets very quickly tiresome to have a film’s heroine dissolve into tears all the time.
Rebecca is the story of the second Mrs de Winter coming soon after her whirlwind romance and hasty marriage to stay at her husband’s palatial home, Manderley, in England. There, she meets Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper (Kristin Scott Thomas, channeling her inner thin-lipped Maggie Smith), a woman for whom the word ‘forbidding’ appears to have been coined. Indeed, she has such an impact on the protagonist that we see an image of her before we ever see Maxim. In the film’s opening sequence, the protagonist’s voice-over narrates the book’s famous first line: ‘Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ As we see her dream transform into a flashback, we see shots of her life at Manderley, and the first is of Mrs Danvers, followed by one of Maxim. In her mind, Manderley is associated not with her husband, but with Mrs. Danvers – and Rebecca, of course.
Rebecca was Maxim’s first wife. She never appears, in the book or in the film: Maxim is a widower. But Rebecca’s spirit is alive; it is kept alive by Mrs Danvers. Scholars have studied and written extensively about Rebecca and Mrs Danvers’s relationship: that they were lovers, that Rebecca was a free-thinking, life-loving bisexual woman, and that it was more than simply the mistress-servant attachment that drove Mrs Danvers to hold on determinedly to Rebecca’s memory. Indeed, in the film, Mrs Danvers declares that she loved Rebecca.
But first, we meet the unnamed leading lady travelling in Europe as a lady’s companion to a Mrs Van Hopper. Ann Dowd plays this minor character and has a high old time about it, dressed in bright colours with dark curls bouncing around her face. The young woman is also always fashionably turned out in summer dresses, hats, light tops and stylish pants (Lily James seems unable to be in a film without an enviable wardrobe; remember Cinderella? Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again?), so it is no doubt that she attracts the eye of the vacationing and newly widowed Maxim.
Their week-long romance is so skilfully edited (by Jonathan Amos), we don’t know where the time has gone, and nor do they. One minute, they’re chatting over a plate of oysters for breakfast; the next, he’s adorning her shoulder with wet sand. We never see scenes in their entirety: they always taper off, with their closing moments intercut with the opening moments of the next, as though we’re seeing the memories of moments instead of the moments themselves. The young woman remarks at one point that it would be wonderful if we could bottle memory like scent, opening the bottles whenever we wish to. And Maxim adds that it would also mean we could throw out the memories we don’t want.
What does Maxim not want to remember? The young woman guesses it’s about his first wife, questions about whom he refuses to answer, even after they’re married and living at Manderley. But the young woman is endlessly curious, always walking around, always opening doors and drawers, knocking things over, going places she shouldn’t, and she’s bound to find out.
This character, the second Mrs de Winter, remains unnamed because her entire identity is built around trying to sustain a relationship with her husband, against the overwhelming odds of his dead wife and his very alive housekeeper. Lily James’s performance is tough to judge because her interpretation of this woman is to render her weepy and wilting, unsure and weak: she is curious and inquisitive, but this is buried under her tendency to be frightened to tears. Is the character lost in this one trait – the weepiness? Or is this a carefully realized performance, where her weepy weakness is transformed into teary courage in the film’s climax? I’m still not sure; what it isn’t, however, is an enjoyable performance.
But then, this is not an enjoyable film – and not only in the sense of its being fun to watch. Not all movies must be fun to watch, but none should be limp. This one sometimes is, especially when its charged climax ends up ineffective. I was particularly turned off by its closing portions, which tack on a sickly sweet, romantic closure to du Maurier’s fiery finish.
Most disappointing is how little the supporting characters are developed: none of them become real people; if you haven’t read the book, it’s unlikely you’d make out that Beatrice (Keeley Hawes) is Maxim’s sister and not one of his acquaintances. Frank Crawley (Tom Goodman-Hill), Maxim’s assistant, is a friendly solace to the protagonist in the book; here, he barely registers. And actors you may recognize from British TV, like Mark Lewis Jones (from an episode in The Crown) or Bill Paterson (Dad in Fleabag), are cast in negligible parts.
This Rebecca is beautifully filmed and scored but, apart from the scene-layering I spoke about earlier (which is, however, only intermittently used after the Europe scenes), it doesn’t do anything very special with this special story.
Rebecca streams on Netflix.
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