Netflix’s Rebecca: Pretty, but Problematic

Warning: Spoilers for Rebecca (2020) ahead!

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Widely hailed as one of the best opening lines in the history of English literature, it ushers the reader into the world of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel, Rebecca, and now, into director Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaptation of the novel for Netflix. Several years ago, I read du Maurier’s novel and found it to be one of those rare books which simultaneously brought me great enjoyment and great frustration. Perhaps predictably, Netflix’s Rebecca did the same.

Wheatley’s film is not the first time that Rebecca has been adapted for the silver screen—in 1940, Alfred Hitchcock helmed its first adaptation to wide acclaim: the film is currently crowned with an astonishing 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes (which obviously didn’t exist in 1940, but still proves that it was a hit almost universally enjoyed, by critics and audiences alike). I’ve never seen Hitchcock’s adaptation myself, but it is evident already that Wheatley’s version is not being nearly as praised (it currently sits at a tepid 44%). Although I don’t have Hitchcock’s film to compare it with, this dislike toward Rebecca (2020) does confuse me. While the film is not entirely satisfying, this is mostly due to plot-related reasons which, in my opinion, infect Rebecca across the board.

Where Wheatley’s Rebecca succeeds, it does so in much the same ways as du Maurier’s novel. When I read Rebecca, I was mesmerized by the atmospheres du Maurier created, and the stark contrast between them: the sun-drenched streets of Monte Carlo vs. the cold and foreboding Manderley estate. Her descriptions were a pleasure to read, and all in all, she succeeded in crafting a gothic story that was both frightening and darkly lovely. Wheatley, too, excels here. The film’s cinematography is excellent, and keeps your eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. I’m notorious for going on my phone mid-film and missing things (and then asking questions about what’s going on and angering my family), but I could hardly bring myself to do that when everything happening on-screen was so beautifully composed. In turn, this endowed the film with the air of mystery and glamour which I found so enticing in du Maurier’s novel. 

While it has style down, substance is where Wheatley’s film, and to a lesser extent du Maurier’s novel, fails. Lily James gives a believable performance as the naive new Mrs. de Winter, and Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as the sinister Mrs. Danvers, but Armie Hammer’s Maxim de Winter is somewhat wooden. Most egregiously, James and Hammer are much too close in age to portray the de Winters as they are meant to be—born 20-some years apart, which lends the novel much of its creepiness as readers witness an orphaned young girl attempt to fill the shoes of her 42-year-old husband’s worldly dead wife, Rebecca.

This scenario leads me to the bulk of my qualms with the Rebecca novel, and even more so with the film. Throughout the story, readers/viewers watch Mrs. de Winter blunder her way through her new life at Manderley, while her husband goes off on unannounced trips to London, yells at her for making mistakes and walks away when she asks perfectly understandable questions such as, "What happened to your dead wife???" All the while he placates her with physical affection, knowing full well that she will let him off the hook because she is a friendless orphan with nowhere else to go. This would not be too problematic in and of itself if the novel and film did not end the way they do. Upon learning that Maxim shot and killed Rebecca after she bragged about being pregnant with another man’s child, Mrs. de Winter resolves to champion him, helping him build his court case and ultimately getting him exonerated by suggesting that Rebecca committed suicide after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

In du Maurier’s novel, it is at least clear that this disturbing behavior occurs because Mrs. de Winter is terrified of being alone again, and believes saving Maxim from the clutches of the law is her only way of evading this. In the film, her actions are painted as a form of female empowerment (viewers witness James, once timid and insecure, staring stonily ahead into a crowd of reporters and whispering legal advice in Hammer’s ear), which I found to be a grossly inaccurate portrait of a woman defending the man who has emotionally abused and taken advantage of her—AND, let’s not forget, is a murderer, despite Rebecca’s cruel treatment of him. Worse yet, the explanation provided in the film’s final scene as James embraces a shirtless Hammer in a Cairo hotel room is, to paraphrase, that she “did it all for love, which is what truly matters.” Ew. In the novel, the couple’s ultimate happiness is at least shrouded in ambiguity, with du Maurier placing emphasis on Manderley’s continued haunting of the young protagonist, while it feels like Wheatley is saying, “Yeah, but look! She can still travel the world with Armie Hammer! And he has muscles!”

All of that aside, I still can’t say I regret taking a trip to Manderley again. Rebecca is an undeniably enjoyable watch, especially on a cold October night. But I find myself with the same grievances as before, magnified by knowledge of the reach that the Netflix film’s dubious message will have, in comparison with its source material.