Rebecca is a curious movie. It has all of the ingredients that should make it far more enjoyable than it ends up being. The leading roles are played by Armie Hammer (The Social Network) and Lily James (Cinderella), both young, attractive and capable actors. Supporting actors include Ann Dowd (The Leftovers, Hereditary) and Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient). The production design and camera work are aces. The movie is based on the same material that brought Hitchcock his only Best Picture Oscar (back in 1940). For varying reasons, the ingredients don’t come together, resulting in a middling viewing experience.
I have not seen Hitchcock’s take on the material, but based on the movies of his that I have seen, I can see why he was interested in this story. An unnamed young lady (Lily James) serves as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), a rich American traveling the continent with insults to spare. The young woman meets and falls in love with Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), recently widowed and the heir to the Manderley estate. The two wed and come home to Manderley after a brilliant honeymoon abroad. Once there, the young lady is left to her own devices for most of the time while Maxim works with the property manager on the estate. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper (Kristin Scott Thomas), takes an immediate dislike to the young lady, and frequently sabotages her authority. The young lady believes Maxim is still in love with his deceased wife, and becomes increasingly distraught that he may divorce her.
The young lady decides to revive the Manderley tradition of holding a costume ball, and all goes according to plan until she is tricked into wearing a costume that the former Mrs. De Winter had worn in a painting. All hope appears gone for the young lady until a storm loosens the wreck of the former Mrs. De Winter’s boat. Locals find the bones (and hair) of what appears to be the former Mrs. De Winter inside the boat. Maxim (finally!) confesses to the young lady that he hated his previous wife, and killed her at her prodding. Since Maxim had previously identified a different body as his late wife several months prior, Inspector Welch (Mark Lewis Jones, Star Wars:The Last Jedi) leads the investigation into the death of Mrs. De Winter. Over the course of the inquest, it is revealed that the former Mrs. De Winter was a harlot, sleeping around with several men while married to Maxim, including her cousin! The young lady discovers that the former Mrs. de Winter had gone to see an oncologist before she died. She learned she had incurable cancer, with only a short time left to live. She urged Maxim to kill her without telling him her condition, and he covered up what essentially was a suicide. With this new evidence, Maxim is freed.
Mrs. Danvers, still angry at the young lady for replacing the former Mrs. de Winter, sets Maderley on fire and drowns herself. We last see Maxim and the young lady in Cairo, their passion for each other restored now that the ghost of the former Mrs. de Winter has been excised.
Rebecca is somewhat conventional and familiar (Wuthering Heights came to mind). However, given the chemistry of the leads and the psychological elements at play, the end result should have been more satisfying than it is. In the beginning of the movie, we learn that the young lady is well read, has been traveling abroad for a while, can sketch very well and drive a car. She seems self-sufficient at the outset, but once she is transported to Manderley, she is relatively helpless. Instead of showing any fortitude or agency, she acts like a babe lost in the castle. One of the characters comments that the young lady is a child, when in real life, Lily James is 31. She is only three years younger than Armie Hammer! Rebecca’s characterization of the young lady felt regressive, making her a completely helpless and gullible person.
I mentioned that the two leads show chemistry in the beginning. They make love on a seaside beach (off camera) and do share the same bed in Manderley. The movie is very chaste for a long stretch, ignoring the sparks that flew early on to instead focus on the former Mrs. de Winter and her hold on Maxim. It isn’t until the last scene in the movie where we see the young lady’s unclothed leg, and she and Maxim share a passionate embrace and kiss.
The movie gives us few details of the former Mrs. de Winter until the last third of the movie. In the meantime, we see two rooms that the former Mrs. de Winter occupied, and Mrs. Danvers gives a vague testimonial to her ability to ride a horse. We never learn enough about Mrs. de Winter to understand her hold on Maxim and Mrs. de Winter’s undying devotion to her.
The movie also does an about-face on Maxim’s character. Initially, he is charmed by the young lady’s bookish knowledge, her comfort with the unconventional (oysters for breakfast?) and ability to drive a car. But when the action moves to Manderley, he mostly becomes a scold. Any interest Maxim had in the young lady as a person disappears. Whenever the young lady presses Maxim on his former wife, he says something terse and leaves her.
The movie reminded me of Roger Ebert’s definition of “the idiot plot”. This is when an entire movie is built around a simple misunderstanding, where if one character had taken the time to explain something to another character, all of the trouble and strife that the characters endure would have been easily avoided. If Maxim had ever bothered to talk about his former wife with the young lady, telling her how he hated her, the young lady would never have thought that Maxim was still obsessed with her. This revelation also would have helped to understand Mrs. Danvers’ actions as well. Not admitting to his second wife that he killed her predecessor served nothing but put Maxim through an inquest and thrown in jail.
There are pleasures to be taken in Rebecca, though. The acting by the supporting characters is excellent, the cinematography is top notch, and the shooting locations in Monte Carlo and Manderley are bright and colorful. The stories of the young lady and Maxim are somewhat interesting, but individually they never reach a boil. Rebecca may be entertaining, but ultimately the movie is an inconsequential trifle.