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Film Review: Rebecca

23 October 20 words: George White

It's been 80 years since the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, but does that mean it's time for another take on the story? Screen Co-Editor George White thinks not... 

Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas
Running time: 121 minutes

If you’re going to remake a Hitchcock classic like Rebecca, you’d better make sure you do it well. Sadly, director Ben Wheatley struggles to do so, his take on the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel failing to maintain the interest of the audience from start to finish. There is definitely promise here, but for one of the year’s most-anticipated releases, it is ultimately something of a disappointment.

The film follows Lily James in the lead role, as her character, initially referred to merely as ‘Mademoiselle’, marries aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) whose wife died in unknown circumstances - and whose presence continues to cast a shadow over the de Winter family.

Mademoiselle’s story is broken up into three very, very distinct acts. The issue is, only one of them is entertaining.

The first half-hour feels like a spin-off from ITV’s The Durrells, the early 20th century Monte Carlo setting used for some terrifically on-the-nose, predictable comedic moments. Attempts to demonstrate an instant, overpowering connection between Mademoiselle and Maxim feel more than forced, with Wheatley cycling through one early romance cliché after another.

After this, the film takes a darker, more tense turn, as Mademoiselle rather hastily becomes Mrs de Winter and joins Maxim at his vast country home, managed by an unnerving team of servants led by a frosty Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). As James’ character struggles to settle in, strange happenings start to occur, including some spooky sleepwalking and the discovery of a room full of mysterious mirrors.

this long-awaited drama was barely worth the wait at all

The problem is, though, much like how the first act isn’t as funny or charming as it thinks it is, the second act fails to build anything near the level of tension it so clearly tries to achieve. Cheap jump scares and an eerie score take steps towards adding some form of suspense, but it offers nothing we haven’t seen before, and bigger set pieces struggle to properly hit home.

Where Rebecca really gets going, though, is in its final act, as the film shifts gear (again) to become something of an entertaining crime thriller. As the true nature of Rebecca’s death is revealed, Maxim is thrust into the spotlight, and his strange and distanced behaviour is finally explained. What follows is an enjoyable, and genuinely tense, series of twists and turns, with Hammer taking things to the next level as he is - finally - given more to do.

Sadly, Hammer’s gain is James’ loss, her character’s complexity almost completely abandoned. Up until this point, James, despite being stuck with a relatively uninteresting script, did the best she could with what she was given, instilling a relatively disengaging character with emotional depth through her impressive range. By the end, however, it feels like she is merely there to serve a single, rather simplistic purpose.

Credit goes to the costume and set designers for creating a truly beautiful world, but sadly the story told within it is less than captivating. Rebecca jumps so aggressively from tone to tone that it threatens whiplash, each act failing to piece together to form an engaging whole. Hammer and James are impressive enough, but are ultimately let down by a disjointed and monotonous script. Sadly, in a year starved of top quality releases, this long-awaited drama was barely worth the wait at all.

Did you know? Sam Riley and Armie Hammer appeared in Free Fire (2016), which was also directed by Ben Wheatley.

Rebecca is now available on Netflix

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