The romanticism of Daphne du Maurier has proven an indelible partner for the filmmaker. Her works, exuding big moody energies, are irresistible for on-screen translation. Don’t Look Now (1973), the most sumptuously sensual of psychological horrors, mined her works for clear cinematic value. In a film as brooding as that, we have the most natural of sexual chemistries. The haunting poetry of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) marked the master of suspense’s entry into Hollywood filmmaking. The first famed collaboration between Hitchcock and David O. Selznick, the film charted the course for tone-poem Gothicism, enlivening Maurier’s penchant for moody atmosphere through stark black and white photography, as though danger and perfection could live at once, within the shadows.
It’s a perfectly natural thing for Netflix to latch onto, to reproduce at the surface level of Maurier’s work. Thus goes the Netflixification of Ben Wheatley’s new work. With all the installed romance of the author’s crowning literary achievement, only the surface level of Rebecca is explored in its direct-to-streaming 2020 adaptation. There is romance aplenty. The paranormal, however, recedes into the visage of a more standardized, modern approach.
Armie Hammer (Maxim de Winter) and Lily James (Ms. de Winter) will justify the film for their audiences. The film is a kind of hors d’oeuvre. Its actors are certainly snacks. They are delightfully beautiful on the screen, because that is their objective quality. The pairing produces some small dopamine, if the rest is not an interminable love story, made less than it was 80 years ago.
Rebecca already carried the sense of a dream state. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” went the most perfect of novelistic openings. The key to Maurier is she could really write a beautiful novel, not forced into the novella tendencies of women of her time. Her words sing together and imply the starkest of images, of which Hitchcock captured, and Wheatley has not.
There is a plainness to the image now. Everything is imagined literally from the page, safe from euphemism or metaphor. The textual representation, of Rebecca, only as a romantic work, cheats the text of its greater semblance of meaning, and deeper literary value, as a heightened romance of unknowable gothic powers. What is worse, the film rewrites some passages, either by overextending or omitting parts, either saying too much or too little. The most egregious of which is the ending, which goes beyond the gorgeous finality of the page, “And the ashes blew toward us with the salt wind from the sea,” or of Hitchcock’s most memorable of house fires, where the shadows of George Barnes’ photography cash their check.
That it still functions is a testament to the ageless love story of it all. Rebecca remains as sickly sweet as its initial conception. It does not add much new value, not any that is necessary or productive for that story, but it is a fair textual translation. Wheatley translates what amounts to a feverish dream of leftover spouses to a nice, clean Netflix film with mild suspense.