To step onto the path that Alfred Hitchcock had once walked into—in a hard fought creative battle against David Selznick—is indeed a dire move for British director, Ben Wheatley. Hitchcock’s Rebecca is an exemplary, classic thriller to portray an invisible threat at its finest. Wheatley, adept in making horror out of people (as in Sightseers, A Field in England, and High Rise), keeps assuring that his Rebecca isn’t going to follow Hitchcock’s path, but to rather faithfully follow Daphne du Maurier’s novel. He’s got the point to avoid direct comparison to the classic; but, even so, his rendition of this psychological thriller ends up being bland, at best.
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Maybe the audacity comes with a confidence that Wheatley is able to stage an embarrassing costume party that becomes a pivotal moment in Rebecca the way he made it in the turning point of High Rise. The scene, in fact, is Wheatley’s finest moment in this adaptation—unraveling a previously suspected motivation and preceding a critical revelation in the story. Yet, for the whole set of elements, Rebecca is not Wheatley’s material.
Hitchcock’s Rebecca excels in making a compact, solid thriller even when the source material suggests a bloated story—which apparently is the case in Wheatley’s movie even when it’s actually 30 minutes shorter. The apparent problem is the flow and the pacing. From the moment Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) falls for the soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) in a Monte Carlo summer fling, to the harrowing experience in Manderley mansion with all the disdains and the fusses, to the courtroom drama where everything leads to, the new Rebecca feels like a three-story movie that barely balances.
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The grandiosity that Monte Carlo sequences suggest set the mood for the whole movie. When Mr. de Winter, with his exquisite costume, gets himself in another Armie Hammer fling (the last time Hammer did this; it didn’t go well for the lover apparently), we expect the whole movie to be in this level of exquisiteness, especially the middle part—the most crucial one where majority of Rebecca takes place. However, the whole Manderley venture feels dwarfed compared to the French Riviera connection. The mansion feels like a miniatur of how it should have been; but, the problem is, even when Wheatley is adept in creating horror, the whole ghost-of-the-spouse-past horror isn’t creeping. The legal thriller, which separates this from the 1940 movie feels like a superfluous addition.
Wheatley still excels in making a great thriller and it comes in the form of Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, the Manderley’s butler. Whenever she’s around, darkness lurks beneath her, telling us that she’s not someone we can mess around. However, there’s an underlying problem that makes this interesting character lost her flames before reaching out the potentials. In Hitchcock’s movie, Mrs. Danvers’ homoerotic motivation roams in the air even when it’s not explicitly mentioned (due to the restrictions of portraying or suggesting same-sex relationship back in the days); Wheatley, has all the good acumen, has to spit it out loud without any impact.
Wheatley is possibly one of the most promising directors right now; but, Rebecca, however harrowing it could be, is not the movie for him.