- Emma Simmonds
- 15 October 2020
Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James light up this glossy and entertaining spin on the Daphne du Maurier story
The director of Kill List does Daphne du Maurier in this sumptuous, entertaining but emotionally less engaging take on the novelist's most famous work. Beautifully adapted by Hitchcock in 1940, it bagged him his only Best Picture Oscar win. If it's a tall order to stay out of that film's shadow, Ben Wheatley attempts to do so by going big on production value; with highly saturated colours that pop gloriously (and distinguish it from Hitchcock's moody black-and-white version), this Rebecca is like something from Technicolor's heyday.
Lily James is the unnamed protagonist, a meek lady's companion accompanying the ghastly Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd, from The Handmaid's Tale, who really knows how to play a piece of work) to Monte Carlo. Armie Hammer plays her rich saviour, Maxim de Winter, a widower who seemingly rescues our heroine from a life of being belittled and keeping schtum, marrying her after a whirlwind romance and taking her home with him to imposing British pile Manderley. Out of her depth and assailed by reminders of Maxim's dead wife Rebecca, whose memory is being kept madly alive by the estate's dastardly housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the new Mrs de Winter becomes gripped by paranoia.
The headline here is, as expected, Scott Thomas as the iconic meddler Danvers. If she can't quite top Judith Anderson's turn, it's huge fun watching her try – her scarlet lips curling in serial disapproval, or being forced into a sour smile. James is good too; credibly being driven out of her mind, her character is stunningly styled by Julian Day, as she wafts about the place oblivious to her own gorgeousness, with her cute blonde bob, trim little jackets and wide-legged trouser and blouse combos. But Hammer is a major disappointment as Maxim, unable to bring much presence, or any edge to this pivotal role.
Still, the film is often swooningly attractive, with Wheatley's regular cinematographer Laurie Rose really excelling himself. And the screenplay – by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse – adds additional excitement to the finale and a more feminist skew to Danvers' motivations, with our heroine getting some more agency too. Although there are flashes of ingenuity, the period melodrama doesn't really feel like Wheatley's wheelhouse and he seems hemmed in by the need to produce something faithful and commercially viable; the result is more watchable than wonderful.
Available to watch in selected cinemas from Fri 16 Oct and on Netflix from Wed 21 Oct.