I’m always rooting for Ben Wheatley. He’s made films I enjoy and films I found bland. It’s a coin toss each time his efforts are delivered to the public, but the guy has such a decent flair for the imagery he’s playing with that I want him to succeed. When Rebecca was announced I had just finished A Field in England for the first time. It was a mean little film, black and white and seemingly with limited funding that led to excellent results. I was a huge fan of his films Kill List and High Rise, while the rest of his filmography feels like the same way I interpret Ryan Murphy television shows: it looks cool, it sounds cool, it’s competently performed and designed, and it just…doesn’t work.
The film hits most of the same beats from the novella and Hitchcock’s original film. The narrator remains unnamed, shortly known only as Mrs. de Winter (Lily James). Her enigmatic new husband, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), is stoic and oh-so-droll in his charmingly bland demeanor. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) is almost hilariously villainous from her first scene. Manderley Manor is beautiful and full of bright windows, illuminating everything in sunlight.
I’m never one to harp on about the merits of remaking a wondrous film. Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznik produced an adaptation 80 years ago that is a perfect blending of psychological thriller, romance, and mystery all wrapped in a black-and-white frosting that just tastes perfect. Most remakes incorporate modern sociopolitical themes and economic hauntings, ideas and worries that we have every day. It’s the reason to update a classic; the chance to bring something new to an already-beloved story should be printing money. Ben Wheatley’s update to Rebecca doesn’t feel that way. This thing is anemic, gutting all of the glory of the source material and original film and hiding under a digitally filmed sheen and actors so pretty they seem to be there to distract from how hollow this film truly is.
That’s not to say they aren’t doing the best they can with what they’re given! Armie Hammer and Lily James are pretty people and competent performers, each using their natural beauty as well as their trained talent to try to convince us that the world and story they inhabit keep more under the surface and aren’t just nice to look at. There’s a little bit in there, but just not enough to convince me that I really need to participate in the wider scope of this world. The film is the equivalent of that couple from high school so many movies have tried to convince me was real. He’s the all-star quarterback, muscled and beautiful to behold, while she’s the head cheerleader and is beautiful beyond recognition. Then you see them twenty years later after forgetting they existed, discovering that they both have a beer gut alongside eight kids while living in a trailer park and we just…wish we hadn’t been reminded of all that.
This is definitely going to be pretty enough to lure in a lot of people, but I doubt anyone will remember this more than a day or two after the credits roll. Again, no one hates how much some harp on the merits of remakes as I do, but this is one of those few that I truly sat back and thought…”Why?”