Warning: this article contains spoilers for Netflix’s Rebecca.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Thus begins Netflix’s Rebecca, starring Armie Hammer and Lily James. And thus begins a new generation’s obsession with Daphne du Maurier’s much-adapted gothic thriller, despite the lukewarm response from critics.
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Far glossier than Alfred Hitchcock’s beloved 1940 version, Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca hits all the familiar beats of a very familiar story. There’s our unnamed heroine’s whirlwind romance with handsome Cornish widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, after he rescues the timid lady’s companion from a hotelier hellbent on reminding her of her low ranking as “staff.”
There is, too, the abrupt proposal (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!”) and her unexpected ascension to Mrs de Winter. Her arrival at Manderley – her new husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast – is marred by the Downton Abbey-sized staff’s immediate dislike of her.
Then, of course, there’s sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers (an impossibly chilly Kristin Scott Thomas), who wastes no time in comparing the new Mrs de Winter, unfavourably, to Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. It’s through these constant little jibes that she tricks James’ character into disgracing herself at a fancy-dress ball, prompting a destructive spiral of self-hatred.
Most important of all, though, is the lingering presence of Rebecca. Her presence hangs heavy in the air between the new Mrs de Winter and her husband.
And, while the former boldly declares that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, it quickly becomes apparent to everyone watching that…well, that the ghosts believe in her.
It is an oddly happy ending to a romance that is largely defined by murder.
Netflix’s aesthetically-pleasing adaptation is undeniably entertaining, if a little too campy in places. Ann Dowd’s Mrs Van Hopper is silly, vain, and gossipy – yet she positively oozes with menace. Thomas, likewise, is malevolence personified as the manipulative Mrs Danvers. And James, sporting a vintage bob and modelling an array of covetable outfits, is incredibly believable as the “funny, young, lost” Mrs de Winter.
Hammer’s take on Maxim, though, has come under fire, with many insisting he is far too rosy-cheeked, too straightforward, too handsome, too hunky, to successfully portray the wounded and secretive Maxim. The ending, too, goes one step further than that offered up in the original text, insisting upon a very final confrontation between James and Danvers’ characters – one which allows the former to step out from the late Mrs de Winter’s shadow and reclaim her life as her own.
And then there’s that sneaky glimpse into Maxim and Mrs de Winter’s charmed new life in Cairo, which feels an oddly happy ending to a romance which is largely defined by murder.
That’s right: while the original text is often described as a romance, many feminist critics have interepreted it differently. To them, this is a horror story, and one which largely revolves around society’s fear of powerful women.
Or, to put it more bluntly, sexually-liberated women.
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As Olivia Laing notes in The Guardian, the late Rebecca is described as “an animal, a devil, a snake, ‘vicious, damnable, rotten through and through’. She’s destroyed because of her poisonous sexuality, what The Daily Mail might euphemistically call her ‘lifestyle’.
“Amazingly, the reader is somehow manipulated or cajoled into believing her murder and its concealment are somehow necessary, even romantic; that being cuckolded is a far worse fate than a woman’s death.”
Laing adds: “It’s a grim reworking of Bluebeard, in which the murderer is suddenly the victim, adorable despite his bloody hands.
This on-point reading of Rebecca is largely ignored by Netflix’s adaptation. Once again, the new Mrs de Winter forgives Maxim for murdering his late wife. Once again, she is so relieved to learn he didn’t love Rebecca that she fails to question his motives.
And, once again, Rebecca’s side of the story (we only ever hear Maxim’s account of the matter) is largely shielded from the audience.
Despite this, though, Wheatley has included a nod to feminist critics’ reading of Rebecca – although it is over in the blink of an eye.
We’re talking, of course, about James’ tight little gasp early on in the film.
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You’ll no doubt remember the scene. Playing out against the sun-soaked backdrop of Monte Carlo, Maxim is seen using a telescope to spy on something in the distance.
“Oh, there we go,” he says with relish.
“What are you looking at?” asks James’ character, intrigued.
Maxim half-heartedly attempts to distract her, a smile tugging at his lips. Flirtatiously, though, he soon gives up the telescope so that she can take a look for herself.
Cue a close-up shot of James’ eyes widening in shock as she realises what she’s staring at: a blissfully unaware couple having sex on a yacht. And then? Well, then she lets out a gasp of shock and disgust and (just a hint of) lust.
It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment but one that serves as a reminder that the main thrust of this film – and Rebecca’s story – is largely about how society views women. By the standards we hold them up to, the expectations we place upon them, particularly with regards to their sexual conduct.
Because, yes, while Maxim may have delighted in a strange couple’s carefree lovemaking, he murdered Rebecca for her duplicity and “loose” behaviour. And, in Netflix’s retelling of the story (just as with all the previous adaptations), she is replaced by a “good girl” who follows the rules laid down by her husband.
A “good girl” who kisses her husband with wild abandon in their hot Cairo bedroom, true, but whose initial reaction to sexual liberation is horror. Whose identity is entirely subsumed into her husband’s name and family history. And whose story is forever defined by that of her gasp-worthy predecessor, aka the “bad woman” who broke the rules.
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