A Lit Major At The Movies

Rebecca (2020) and the Case of Hitchcock’s Ghost

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a tricky book. Tricky because it’s a Gothic romance, and in the spirit of this truly problematic genre, it contains some very icky characters. Specifically, its male characters. It’s the story of an unnamed heroine who’s pulled out of an unexceptional existence when she marries a rich widower named Max de Winter and goes to live on his massive English estate, Manderley. She becomes fascinated with the powerful memory of the hero’s first wife, Rebecca, who seems almost alive, a kind of ghost haunting the massive country house, except not literally of course – which is a good thing, all in all, because it cuts out all that messy business with the clanking chains and mysterious rains of blood, which are almost impossible to get out of the carpets.

A few months ago, Netflix released a new film version of this classic of English fiction. I usually try to ignore Netflix’s persistent and bald-faced attempts to shove their own productions down viewers’ throats, but when it comes to period dramas, all spirit of resistance tends to drain out of me rather swiftly. So almost as soon as I saw that Rebecca had been released, we were settling down on a Friday night to watch it.

In true Rebecca style, this adaptation is haunted. But it’s haunted less by the mysterious figure of Rebecca and more by something likewise emerging from the murky past: the spectral figure of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Because despite the beauty of the sets, and some decent acting, it’s clear very early on that this movie just can’t live up to Hitchcock’s version. Given how powerful the 1940 film is, and what a classic of movie history it is, comparisons are inevitable. And let’s face it, when it comes to compelling psychological dramas, Hitchcock is not the kind of filmmaker you’d want to try to face off with.

So with that in mind, I’m not going to make any further attempts to mask the fact that I spent the entirety of the film comparing it to Hitchcock’s. I also make no apologies about banging on about it in this review. My thinking is, if you want to remake a Hitchcock classic, be ready for this sort of thing.

The movie begins with creepy, flickering titles over a shot of the sea at night. It seems like the opening is setting you up for a darker version of this classic that emphasises all the messed up elements present in Du Maurier’s original. The first lines spoken in the film are those classic ones that I think every Rebecca adaptation needs to begin with, because they’re so powerful: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, as the heroine begins telling her tale. The shots of the large, castle-like manor in the dark seem to promise a classic Gothic film darker than the average period drama – a kind of crossover between Jane Austen and Gone Girl. But these scenes rapidly dissolve into the too-bright, sunlit world of Monte Carlo, and although the film meanders back to this dark place a few times, it never stays there for too long.

I won’t give you a scene-by-scene comparison, but there were two big elements that I couldn’t help focusing on when comparing this movie to the 1940 film for the simple reason that they’re major parts of what makes Rebecca as a story tick. Firstly, I’m not sure whether it was intentional or not, but this movie doesn’t make as much of an effort to give us the sense that Rebecca is still some kind of quasi-living presence in the house. Maybe it’s because Hitchcock did this to perfection: he never shows Rebecca on screen, and yet she really is present in the film in some indescribable way that she just isn’t in this new adaptation. In this version, we see a few shots of Rebecca (her back, what is presumably her decaying body floating in the sea), and for me at least, this somehow immediately diminishes her mystique and power in some indescribable way, more so than when we never catch so much as a glimpse of her physical body, whether real or imagined.

And the second major comparison is to do with the ending: it’s revealed that Max killed his first wife and covered up her death, meaning that this film retains the novel’s original, problematic ending. (Hitchcock lets Max off the hook by claiming that Max didn’t kill Rebecca, she tripped over and hit her head, a massive cop-out in my opinion as, given Olivier’s ability to play both dashing romantic heroes and dastardly villains, I think it would have been interesting to see him try to make Max an attractive hero even after we learn that he killed his wife; I’m confident Olivier could have pulled it off.) But although we keep the original ending, this movie again lets Maxim off easy; I’d argue even easier than the book does, even though the book is told from his besotted new wife’s point of view. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on the actual murder. Instead, we see the heroine immediately leap into action to cover up her husband’s actions and make the whole nasty business of the Dead First Wife disappear. There are conscious efforts made to ensure that Armie Hamer’s blue-eyed, blonde-haired tortured husband remains a romantic hero despite his slight wife-murdering tendencies.

I do wonder what inspired the filmmakers to make a new version of the Rebecca story. Of course it’s a compelling tale, but what’s the significance of remaking it at this point in time? It doesn’t really help us shed any light on gender relations, or contemporary marriage, or any of the other related themes that the book definitely does give us ample grounds to explore. It seems to be a little bit unnecessary, loath as I am to ever complain about pretty period dramas.

Having said that, however, I do think that in some strange way Rebecca did come at the right time: if you put aside the creepier elements of this story (and the film definitely makes an effort to do just that), then it’s pure, period drama escapism. In all the craziness of 2020/2021, it’s a comforting mix of mystery and romance. With the more disturbing elements glossed over, and with its pretty sets and costumes, Rebecca is a great way to slip into a world that, despite being tinged with murder, arson, mariticide (still a real word), and older men marrying girls that are way too young for them, is somehow strangely comforting. From the glamour of Monte Carlo to the dark elegance of Manderley, it takes you to places that, in this dreadful coronavirus period, you’ve been longing for.

Rating: 4 stars, although one of those stars was earned solely by Lily James’ brilliant sweater in the following scene:

Rating: 4 out of 5.


4 replies on “Rebecca (2020) and the Case of Hitchcock’s Ghost”

tantalizing review… i have a vague memory of seeing the Hitchcock at an early age and being scared out of my whatchacallits so i probably won’t watch the Netflix one either… sometimes one never gets over those sorts of things… but you have managed to inject some logic into the plot: a major (lit) achievement, imo… glad to see you haven’t given up on blogging; i love your pov…

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