What would you get if you combined the production design and British intrigue of Downton Abbey with the terrifying psychological warfare of Gone Girl? You, dear reader, would get Rebecca, a gothic romance thriller starring Downton alumna Lily James. There’s a lot to love about the film, which is out on Netflix now, from the beautiful costumes and production design to the great performances from the leading actors. It’s a Halloween movie for Anglophiles with a love of classic films, and it’s just the kind of escape audiences are looking for right now.
Rebecca, based on the classic novel that inspired the 1940s film by Alfred Hitchcock, follows a shy woman (Lily James) who suddenly finds herself at the center of her own rags-to-riches story. Working as a lady’s maid, she meets handsome and charismatic Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a rich widower. After spending a whirlwind vacation falling in love with each other, the two decide to marry and move into Maxim’s large estate, Manderley. But the new Mrs. de Winter (we never learn her name) quickly learns that there’s something wrong in her new home, starting with intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mrs. Danvers seems to hate Mrs. de Winter right away, constantly comparing her to the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. But is Rebecca only a memory in Mrs. Danvers’ head? Or is she still haunting her home, determined to remove this new wife? And why won’t Maxim reveal anything about Rebecca – or how she died? As the new Mrs. de Winter grows more and more paranoid, only one thing is certain: there is something very wrong at Manderley.
The main reason to watch this film is the cast, who each give great performances. James is believable as a naïve young woman caught up in a new world she knows nothing about. Even before the supernatural doubters make themselves known, the new Mrs. de Winter feels out of place in high society, not knowing how to be the lady she has just become by marrying Maxim. Out of her depth and isolation, she still fights for love, wanting to believe in her fairy tale. James never makes her seem silly, instead giving her an edge that makes the many twists in the narrative work. Hammer has the hard job of being both the perfect husband and a man who is potentially capable of violence, and he pulls it off well. You never really know what Maxim is thinking, and yet you want him to be good so that Mrs. de Winter can be proven right. The best of the main trio, though, is Kristin Scott Thomas, who terrifies as Mrs. Danvers. Every snide remark or cutting look strikes fear into the heart of the audience. Her motivations are a mystery to both us and Mrs. de Winter as she at first subtly puts the new wife in her place before escalating to all-out warfare. Scott Thomas appears to relish the chance to be evil, and she’s a villain through and through.
The direction and production design of this film are both done with a lot of attention to detail, fully immersing the viewer in the world of the story. When Maxim and Mrs. de Winter meet for the first time, the world is bright and full of stylish upper-class Brits, a true escape that will make you want to book a plane to Europe immediately. But the second we see Manderley, the fantasy turns dark, full of muted blues and greys (fun fact: the house that is used for Manderley is also Tewkesbury Estate in Enola Holmes). The visual look of this film is stunning, and even if the story and performances weren’t interesting I’d recommend the film just for the nostalgic costuming and beautiful scenery. There’s something to be said for well-produced eye candy, and Rebecca certainly fits the bill.
In an age of reboots and remakes, it’s easy to bemoan how “nothing is original” nowadays, accompanied by a deep sigh. This is especially true when the film or show being rebooted is considered one of the best gothic films ever made, winning Alfred Hitchcock his only Oscar for Best Picture. When the new Rebecca was first announced (and indeed after it premiered), the prevailing attitude seemed to be, “why does this film exist when the original is a classic?” There is a lot of irony in the ghost of the original, “superior” adaptation haunting the newer version, with some critical viewers acting as a Mrs. Danvers themselves. To this I say: let this new film stand on its own merits. It’s not trying to be Hitchcock or remake the original shot for shot. It’s a soapy, suspenseful romance about two attractive Brits falling for each other in gorgeous European homes while things go bump in the night. And if that sounds like a fun night at the movies to you, regardless of your knowledge of the original, go ahead and enjoy it guilt free.
Rebecca is available now on Netflix. Check out the trailer below!