Remaking movies has been a way to make a quick buck in Hollywood for as long as Hollywood has been around. While most remakes happen within a few decades of the original, and the best ones do something a little different or move the story to the modern day, there are cases of remakes no one asked for coming out of nowhere and doing nothing to stand out as worth seeing.
Unfortunately, this could be the case for 2020’s “Rebecca,” the Netflix movie that is not only an adaptation of the famous Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier but a remake of the 1940 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine and the Oscar winner for Best Picture in 1941.
Not only does a story like “Rebecca” not need to be retold in 2020, but when a definitive movie version of it already exists, it’s an uphill battle from the start. While not nearly as bad as the remakes of other classics like “Psycho” or “Ben-Hur,” this film’s biggest problem is not being poorly made or acted — it just doesn’t do anything to stand out as special.
However, for those who have never read the novel or saw the 80-year-old movie, I think this version could be a nice introduction for those unfamiliar with it because this story is a very good gothic and romantic tale with plenty of passion, suspense, gorgeous imagery and a genuinely spooky mystery.
While on vacation in Monte Carlo, wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) meets a young woman (Lily James) who is working as a lady’s companion. The two spend a good deal of time together and it leads to love and marriage.
However, the new Mrs. de Winter is somewhat overwhelmed when, after their honeymoon, the couple return to Max’s vast estate, Manderley. The young bride not only has to deal with a huge house and numerous servants, but also with the dour and domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
With the memory of Max’s first wife, Rebecca, still having a strong hold on everyone at Manderley, Mrs. de Winter soon feels inferior and a disappointment, particularly to her husband and Mrs. Danvers. But not all is as it seems, particularly after a striking discovery is made in the sea near Manderley.
The story of “Rebecca” from 2020 compared to the “Rebecca” of 1940 is almost the same exact one as the new Mrs. de Winter compared to Rebecca in the plot itself. Everyone who loved the first one so much is likely going to find fault with the new one for not looking like or sounding like or doing things like the first one, and that isn’t really fair.
While there are problems with it, this new adaptation is made well enough and does tell the story quite faithfully. Because it’s a story about a rich British household, the look of the production is nice with hundreds of details in the sets and costumes that make this feel like a big, gothic fairytale.
Unfortunately, fancy clothes and a decorated mansion alone do not make a great film. The core of the story is the relationship between Mrs. de Winter and Max, and those sparks just aren’t there with these actors. Hammer and James are phenomenal actors and two very beautiful people, but the emotions and passion and horror that the story calls for just don’t come out in their performances.
Thankfully, that is saved by Thomas’s highly entertaining performance as Mrs. Danvers. Feeling more at home in a soap opera, Thomas is obviously having a blast playing the wicked housekeeper and watching her mess with her new mistress makes you love to hate her.
Although the same story beats are there, a big reason why this adaptation can’t live up to the original is the 21st-century advances in filmmaking. As a gothic mystery, the old black-and-white film stock with its blurry picture and Hitchcock angles and shadows work so much better than the pristine, HD and full-color cinematography used here.
If you’ve read the original novel or saw the Hitchcock film, then this adaptation may be a disappointment, though it is interesting to compare and contrast the versions. But there are still some thrills and suspenseful moments, and the third-act twist is a good one, so those who don’t know the story should give this one a try.