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.

Review, Uncategorized

Just Press Play: Hulu’s ‘High Fidelity’ (2020) is One Infinitely Good Playlist

“Making a playlist is a delicate art.  It’s like writing a love letter, but better, in a way.  You get to say what you wanna say without actually saying it.  You get to use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. And then there are the rules: It’s gotta be entertaining.  You gotta tell a story. You can’t be too obvious, but you can’t be too obscure, either. Anyway, a good compilation, like all things in life, is hard to do.”

As stated above, any good playlist has to be able to tell a story — and just like a good playlist, High Fidelity (based upon the eponymously-titled novel and film, both written and adapted by author Nick Hornby), is one story that steadily and satisfyingly builds over time.  While the series continues to cover the familiar rom-com territory its earlier iterations were built upon (it does display “fidelity” in its title, after all), it also works to further expand and update the mid-90s, early-2000s worlds of its source material with references to our post-Millennial present — all while told mainly through the point-of-view of record shop proprietor Robyn “Rob” Brooks, now in the form of a woman on the cusp of her thirties (Zoë Kravitz). 

Still nursing a broken heart after having split from her former fiancé, Russell “Mac” McCormack (Kingsley Ben-Adir) just the year before, Rob soothes her sorrows the only way she knows how: through flashbacks and awkward reunions over the course of ten half-hour episodes, she takes us down the list of her Desert Island Top Five Heartbreaks.  Her personal “tracklist” becomes the embodiment of music’s inextricable link with one’s memory: the way it could take you back to a time and place when a song or mixtape seemed to define a moment or alter the course of your life.  A great example of this is a bottle episode — and mid-season highlight — in which Rob’s former-lover, current-best-friend Simon (David H. Holmes) rehashes his own Desert Island Top Five. 

Bumping up the nostalgia factor in Fidelity is its production value — shot in a dreamy, hazy Brooklyn replete with neon-lit old-timey hipster dive bars and specialty shops clash with the sterile, Millennial-Pink we associate with Crown Heights these days.  The show’s own tracklist, which ranges from vintage bonafides like Prince and Blondie to modern indie favorites such as Hot Chip and TV on the Radio, proves just as satisfyingly genre-bending and nostalgia-inducing as the show itself — resultant of the collaborative efforts of music supervisors Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe, and Alison Rosenfeld; as well as executive producer Kravitz and special consultant Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.  (Yes, that Questlove).

Fidelity‘s famously signature thesis (that it’s not what we are like, but what we like, that ultimately matters) is put to the test throughout the season.  As Rob says at one point: “Half of the neighborhood thinks we’re washed-up relics. The other half think we’re nostalgic hipsters. They’re both kind of right.”  Championship Vinyl is, after all, the very embodiment of all things once culturally cherished, the last bastion of a time when things were good — where the influencers were the people standing on the other side of the register.  Indeed, in one telling scene features Championship employee — and Rob’s other bestie — Cherise (scene-stealer Da’Vine Joy Randolph) confronts a customer mindlessly Shazaam-ing a song playing in the store, while completely ignoring the fact that she’s standing right in front of him. 

It’s this very confrontation of our current latte-guzzling, Instagram-Selfie culture that makes High Fidelity an interesting remix of the original — one you’ll want to replay over and over again.

Images courtesy of Phillip Caruso/Hulu. High Fidelity is now streaming on Hulu.

Review, Uncategorized

On the Rise: Jessie Buckley’s Star-Making Turn in ‘Wild Rose’

There are star-making turns, and then there are star-making turns. And as much as I loved Lady Gaga in that other movie, nothing beats Jessie Buckley’s unforgettable, BAFTA Scotland-winning performance as Rose-Lynn Harlan in the Tom Harper-helmed Wild Rose (2018).  A decade into a post-Millennial boom in movie-musicals (one which arguably started with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and peaked with John Carney’s Once in 2007, both Oscar-winners), the 2010s saw a more varied approach to merging music with film.   

(Moulin Rouge! has since been adapted for the stage and is now enjoying a Broadway run in New York; while a staged production of Carney’s heart-warming 2016 film Sing Street, is currently seeing an off-Broadway run of at the New York Theatre Workshop and heading to Broadway this coming spring.*) 

A new wave of movie-musicals from the UK and elsewhere have since popped onto the scene, and most notably dancing (and singing) to the beat of their own drum are those hailing from Scotland, such as the offbeat God Help the Girl (2014) and Anna and the Apocalypse (2017).  While perhaps not as lushly produced as a Luhrmann extravaganza, nor as unabashedly romantic as a Carney piece, Harper’s film still very much earns its place in the wider canon of movie-musicals.  In comparison, Wild Rose achieves a storytelling aesthetic that falls somewhere down the middle, though the film itself is anything but middle-of-the-road.

One might even venture to call it a rare flower among films of the genre, in that—much like the main character herself—it unapologetically delights in its own rags-to-riches tropes.  This might have something to do with the film’s excellent country-inflected soundtrack (featuring the likes of Wynonna Judd, Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton, Patty Griffin, and the late John Prine; as well as original songs co-written by actress Mary Steenburgen), which not only helps buoy Rose-Lynn’s story throughout without the use of the usual sung-through elements of a traditional musical but also keeps it grounded in the working-class roots of its own musical traditions.  

With additional standout performances by the always excellent Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo (in supporting roles as Rose-Lynn’s mother and employer, respectively), this is one Rose everyone should stop and pay attention to.

Images courtesy of Neon.

*Portions of this review were written before the shutdown of Broadway as a result of COVID-19/Coronavirus measures.  The shutdown of all Broadway shows has since been extended to early June.