The weird thing about the young woman who becomes Mrs. Max de Winter in both the 1940 Hitchcock version of Rebecca and the recent Netflix remake is that… she is never given a name.
That’s right. She’s a nameless heroine, swept into the embrace of handsome and troubled widower De Winter (played in the original by Laurence Olivier and in the remake by Armie Hammer). Her “naming” comes through marriage (she “becomes” Mrs. De Winter). Her very identity depends on it, and even that is swallowed up and swept aside by the larger memory of the dead wife before her.
Even though the “nameless” narrator device was retained from the Daphne Du Maurier source novel, it’s something you’d think would be jettisoned in the #MeToo era.
But in the new Rebecca, it’s still there. Lily James plays… well, the unnamed character played by Joan Fontaine in the original.
Any Hitchcock scholar would tell you that his women characters undergo severe societal pressures. Hitch’s movies often depict women at the whim of stronger men who either overshadow their identity or play mind games. You can look at the forced makeover of Kim Novak in Vertigo, or the way Cary Grant pushes Ingrid Bergman into “helping” the US government in Notorious (forcing her to marry an escaped Nazi and spy on him, for crying out loud!), or the suggestion that Tippi Hedren has somehow brought a plague of bird attacks to a small seaside town in The Birds. Hitchcock, whatever a technical master he was, had a misogynist streak a mile wide.
But Rebecca was also a feminist text, in that it called attention to the existing patriarchy. In the Netflix version, Lily James plays the mousy new wife, struggling to assert herself in the alien landscape of Manderley, the vast De Winter estate. Her nemesis is Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, a bit over the top), who constantly shades and gaslights James into thinking she could never hold a candle to Rebecca.
James here can hardly hold a candle to Fontaine, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance: every aspect of fear, self-doubt, confusion and budding confidence is there in Fontaine’s face, demonstrated by her drawn-in posture; with James, not so much. Equally, Armie Hammer doesn’t quite possess the brooding presence of Olivier, suggesting deeper tragedies. But he is very tall and handsome, which is probably good enough for Netflix audiences.
There are other key differences:
• The earlier Rebecca glosses over something pretty key to the novel — how Rebecca actually met her fate. The Netflix version updates this into a tale of marital collusion that is closer to the source, but still seems very shady indeed. (A postscript makes them seem even shadier.)
• Mrs. Danvers’ obsession with Rebecca’s memory only lightly telegraphs its lesbianism in the 1940 version — stroking her deceased mistress’s hair “for 20 minutes each night,” drawing her bath, all the hand-embroidered “R” pillows lying around. Today, it’s much more plainly spelled out. (Though the scene in the original where Mrs. Danvers beams dementedly as Manderley burns down is pretty strong telegraphing of her “consuming passion.”)
Incidentally, many people have “outed” writer Du Maurier over the years, citing relationships with Hollywood actresses and others; the novelist herself claimed to have felt like she was two distinct personalities: one a loving wife and mother, the other a “decidedly male energy” that was hidden, dark and creative. She kept the truth, perhaps even from herself, until she died.
• A key line from the original (“I’ve known all along that Rebecca would win in the end”) is classic Gothic fatalism. Even the elements around Manderley seem designed to destroy its characters. This nuance is soggily undeveloped in the remake.
• Hitchcock had a deeper feel for human characters, the good and the bad, and he fills his screen with them — whether it’s Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers, a master class in subtle browbeating; George Sanders’ slimy Jack Favell; or even the dowdy Edith Van Hopper, a polished sketch of phoniness and nastiness. The Rebecca remake merely populates the screen with cardboard cutouts.
I imagine that Netflix viewers would find the older version of Rebecca “slow.” But its pace is built upon atmosphere, a quality that possibly eludes modern viewer tastes. While Ben Wheatley directs with style and attention to some of the moodier details of Manderley, the sunnier glimpses of Monaco and the English countryside somehow pale next to the original, much as the new Mrs. De Winter pales beside the memory of Rebecca.
And let’s remember: Hitch, despite his personal faults, knew how to pull a switcheroo on the audience. He wasn’t called the Master of Suspense for nothing. The original Rebecca creates such a layered impression on the audience, a matter of subtle mood and psychology, that, watching the remake, I initially forgot where the story was eventually heading. The 1940 film, shot in a cliffside mansion bathed in chiaroscuro and overlooking a stormy sea, rings all the bells of murder mystery or Gothic ghost story. Yet there are layers beneath, and we easily get swept up in them.
The 2020 remake apparently wants to modernize things. But of course, it’s all still a pack of red herrings — the intimations of a ghostly presence, the psychological torment Mrs. Danvers inflicts, Max’s tortured pining later exposed as something completely different. But whereas Hitchcock’s version casts a spell, the photogenic Netflix remake, even as it borrows much of the script word for word, simply lays out the matter like a police procedural. By the end, we feel more fooled than enchanted.