Netflix’s ‘Rebecca’ Resurrects the Gothic Romance for a New Generation

“Last night, I dreamt  I went to Manderley again…”

As someone once said: you can’t go home again—but with a new adaptation of Rebecca, now streaming on Netflix, it seems that once again finds itself within our cinematic purview in the form of Manderley.  And if the walls of this modern take on the grand manor could talk, one might find them in agreement.  In some ways, one wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim the gothic romance dead.  On the one hand, director Ben Wheatley’s take on the genre is at once sleek and lusciously rendered, bringing the grandeur of author Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel into a fully technicolor world.  However, in appealing to 21st-century tastes, this re-telling falls short in truly showing Manderley and its titular mistress, flaws and all, in a truly new light.

Du Maurier’s story, now considered a classic of the genre, is chock-full of all the familiar trappings found in other gothic romances of its ilk (such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Northanger Abbey, and the like): a young ingénue, usually a woman; an imposing, stately manse; and a family with a dark secret.  This Rebecca is no different, telling once again the tale of a young woman working as a lady’s companion (Lily James), who is suddenly whisked into a whirlwind romance with a dashing aristocrat by the name of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), only to subsequently find herself navigating the world of England’s landed gentry.  It is at Manderley—Maxim’s ancestral home—where the new Mrs. de Winter becomes increasingly haunted by the seemingly ever-constant memory of her predecessor, the first Mrs. de Winter, who mysteriously perished at sea.

Naturally, because of this, oceanic imagery pervades throughout the film; and much like those mercurial waters, the looming specter of both Manderley and its beloved former mistress first make their presence known with an almost calm, if unsettling, stillness.  A delicate piece of diaphanous lingerie.  The faint mist of perfume.  The heavily blotted ink of a single initial.  The rustle of a curtain.  The creaking of a decrepit boathouse.  But, most of all, it is the house’s omnipresent housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Dame Kristin Scott Thomas) through whom the late Mrs. de Winter’s spirit truly lingers, creeping around every corner with an ever-watchful eye.  “Still waters run deep,” as one character from Alfred Hitchcock’s own 1940 adaptation of the novel famously observes—and soon enough, Manderley reveals its own tempestuous temperaments bubbling just beneath its gilded surface.

Just like its protagonist, Rebecca strives to set itself apart from its own cinematic predecessor, albeit to mixed effect.  From the outset, we can see that this isn’t, as they say, your grandmother’s Rebecca—but rather, one intended for a new generation.  It can’t be easy to follow in the Master of Suspense’s footsteps, and director Wheatley (whose past work has comprised those within the horror genre) attempts to imbue his Rebecca with all the aesthetic sensibilities of a modern psychological thriller: from the inclusion of a sensual love scene in its early Monte Carlo sequence to the interesting juxtaposition of Pentangle’s 1968 recording of traditional folk ballad “The Sprig o’ Thyme”/ “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”; to the grand-scale detail found in its production design and costumes, all the way to the film’s casting.  Yet, for all its pretty dressing, the film’s disparate elements never seem to quite coalesce in order to serve its story.  Though Wheatley does his best to carefully build tension throughout the first two acts, much of the expectant payoff is lost by the film’s denouement.  

The true revelation, instead, lies in Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers—who cuts a more stylish and domineering figure in comparison to that of Judith Anderson’s mousy, more reticent servant in Hitchcock’s 1940 version.  Whereas Anderson is unassuming at first glance, radiating a sense of unease in just a single look or gesture, Scott Thomas brilliantly chooses to go the opposite direction; the latter slowly revealing the stirrings of a maddened mind behind a steely exterior, with a deftness that only a veteran actress could effortlessly bring to a role.  With just one devious, upturned curlique of her burgundy lips, she could bring down the whole house—literally.

Images courtesy of Netflix. ‘Rebecca’ is now streaming on Netflix.