Let’s get this out of the way at the start: Why on earth would you need a new adaptation of “Rebecca” when the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version, a best picture Oscar winner, still exists? Obvious reasons include: That one’s 80 years old; no one watches black and white movies anymore (except you and me); and, most suspiciously, Hitch’s “Rebecca” — his first Hollywood film and a deft three-point landing it is — is unavailable anywhere for streaming at the moment. (There’s the DVD, obviously, and a bootleg version or two on YouTube if you move fast.)
More critically, there are attractive new stars to employ and the story is rock-solid and built for empathy: a meek young woman — we never do learn her name — who marries a wealthy widower and finds herself wilting under the memory of his legendary first wife. Even the title conspires to snuff the poor heroine out.
In addition, there’s another talented British director aiming to prove his chops to US studio brass — or Netflix executives, which is currently the same thing. Ben Wheatley has been turning out spiky, funny, hard-to-categorize movies from his home base in Brighton, England, for over a decade; “Free Fire,” his ingenious 2016 shoot-’em-up, had Hollywood stars and was set in Boston but was shot in Sussex.
“Rebecca” hardly has him coming to America. Wheatley’s movie sticks close to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 bestseller, which already reads as a first-person movie on the page, and he quickly situates us alongside the untested young woman who will become the second Mrs. DeWinter (Lily James). She’s in Monte Carlo as the “paid companion” of an ill-tempered old dowager, a role in which the gifted Ann Dowd (“Compliance,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) wallows happily. The girl’s a nobody but sensitive and sympathetic, and perhaps all three qualities are what draw the mercurial Maxim DeWinter (Armie Hammer), still mourning his first wife, to woo her and quickly propose marriage.
They return to his immense baronial mansion, Manderley, where await the spirit of the dead Rebecca — beautiful, virtuous, beloved — and the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who can only be described as proto-Edward Gorey and who keeps the flame of Rebecca’s memory burning bright and unnerving.
Dame Judith Anderson was nominated for a supporting Oscar for playing Mrs. Danvers in the first film and Kristin Scott Thomas has the icy, menacing elegance — if not the crazy-eyes — to come within shouting distance. James, who has had a very busy few years (“Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella,” “Baby Driver”), brings an ardent innocence to her nameless heroine that effectively keeps us on her side. If she’s not as crushed — as humiliated — as Joan Fontaine’s original was by the reminders of her dead nemesis everywhere and her own perceived inability to match up and be a lady of the mansion, well, that speaks to how class issues and notions of self-empowerment have changed since the 1930s. Du Maurier’s novel is, among other things, about a low self-esteem that verges on masochism.
Is that why this new “Rebecca” lacks the emotional urgency, the sense of a cultured facade on the verge of collapse, that Hitchcock successfully ported over from the book? Or is the casting of Hammer as Maxim the film’s flaw? If the actor doesn’t try to be another Laurence Olivier — and good for him — he still lacks a sharpness, a potentially lethal edge, that keeps the character a question mark to the audience and his new wife. The wit that made Hammer’s gunrunner in Wheatley’s “Free Fire” such a blast is absent here; this Maxim is poised and unruffled, and you never sense anything chewing him up inside. There’s no mystery to him. (Nor a British accent, but never mind.)
Without a mysterious Maxim, the mystery of Rebecca never gains traction, and without a mysterious Rebecca, why are we even watching? The film is handsomely shot and produced, pretty to look at, and it becomes less suspenseful as it goes — not, I think, the intent. Frustratingly, there’s little of Ben Wheatley to it, a feeling that the film is about to erupt sideways in some weird, compelling way. Even the restoration of a climactic plot development Hitchcock had to change to satisfy the Production Code — a restoration that should complicate our feelings about a major character — comes and goes without much ado. Everyone behaves themselves in this “Rebecca,” whereas the point of the book and the first movie is that our worst behavior is always floating just below the waterline, ready to bob to the surface at the wrong moment.
Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas. Available on Netflix. 121 minutes. PG-13 (some sexual content, partial nudity, thematic elements, and smoking)