Daphne Du Maurier’s novel “Rebecca,” an immediate success in 1938, attracted the film industry so quickly that by 1940 it was a highly successful film by Alfred Hitchcock (winning Best Picture), starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as his unnamed wife, George Sanders as the slimy Jack Favel, and Judith Anderson the spooky Mrs. “Danny” Danvers. Four television adaptations appeared between 1948 and 1952, and in 1979 and 1997, the British and PBS got their hands in with multi-part television versions.
It would seem, then, that “Rebecca” endures as a fascinating story, which compels recreations every decade or so. The proof is the latest production (Netflix) with Lily James and Armie Hammer in the lead roles, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.
Is it any good? Well, Du Maurier’s plot is so well known that the suspense which might have gripped theater-goers in 1940 (those, that is, who hadn’t read the book) is likely to have evaporated. (Warning: spoilers follow!) A young girl, a born doormat, is hired as a companion to selfish Mrs. Van Hopper who drags her around Europe—eventually to Monte Carlo—and treats her like dirt. There they meet Maximillian de Winter (“Maxim”), an English aristocrat with a 300-year-old pedigree and a palatial mansion, “Manderley,” waiting for him back home.
Trouble is, Maxim doesn’t want to return because, notoriously, he is in black grief over the death of his beloved wife Rebecca who drowned off the coast near Manderley in a sailing mishap. Never one to miss an opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and famous, Mrs. Van Hopper pushes herself in Maxim’s way—and he meets the heroine. Later, as Van Hopper languishes sick in bed, love blossoms. Click your ruby slippers three times, and Maxim pops the question: our nonentity of a heroine returns with him to England as Mrs. de Winter.
That’s where the fun begins. The staff hardly knows what to make of the new lady, and she feels out of her depth in Manderley. More than that, Rebecca’s imprint is everywhere, with “R” inscribed on daybooks, handkerchiefs—you name it. And then there’s “Danny.” She was Rebecca’s maid from childhood and came to Manderley as housekeeper and companion. And what a companion! From what one can tell, she virtually worshipped her mistress and clearly sees the new Mrs. de Winter as a walking desecration of her memory.
She sets out, as we gather, to sabotage the marriage by urging Mrs. de Winter to dress in a lavish costume for a fancy-dress ball, a gown from a painting on the stairs. The heroine complies, but when she makes her grand entrance, the party gasps, and Maxim flies into a rage. The dress, it turns out, was worn by Rebecca at the last ball. In despair, Mrs. de Winter runs to Rebecca’s rooms to find Danny exultant in victory and more than willing to capitalize on the moment by not too subtly suggesting the lady kill herself. When she doesn’t, it’s owing to sudden chaos below. A ship has broken upon the rocks, and during the rescue, a small boat is discovered: Rebecca’s boat with her body in it.
Mrs. de Winter finds Maxim in a cottage on the shore where she pours out her heart at how unhappy she’s been, knowing how Maxim so deeply loved Rebecca. Except that he didn’t. He “hated” her. She was imperious, Maxim tells his new wife, a serially unfaithful woman. The night she died, she gloated that she was pregnant by her cousin, Favel and that Maxim would never sully the family name by exposing the truth. Furiously, Maxim killed her, put her in her boat, took it out to sea, and scuttled it. But the heroine now understands that she really is loved.
And so we get a new inquest as to the cause of death. A mere formality if Maxim can explain why he misidentified “Rebecca” earlier and if suicide can be proved. If not, an indictment for murder in some degree seems unavoidable. Favel has his suspicions and begins to blackmail Maxim to hide the sordid matter—but Maxim is too noble to allow it. He informs Colonel Julyan, a local nabob at the inquest, of Favel’s overtures, and all of them resolve to find out if Rebecca was carrying Favel’s love child.
Off they go to London to a doctor listed in Rebecca’s daybook around the time she died. The question is, was she pregnant or did she have a motive for suicide? As it happens, says the doctor, she did have a motive. The beautiful lady who visited him (under the name of Mrs. Danvers) was in the advanced stages of cancer. As Maxim divines, Rebecca knew she would soon die and so egged him on to kill her to avoid the inevitable pain—and to exercise her will one final, decisive time.
Like it or not, Maxim gets off, and heads with Mrs. de Winter to Manderley. Now a more confident woman, she dreams of the authority she can now rightly exercise, free from Rebecca’s phantom. But as they come in sight of Manderley, they find it is burning to ashes, the fire possibly set by Mrs. Danvers. And that’s the end.
Hitchcock, in 1940, was instructed not to make Maxim a murderer; however, by and large, his “Rebecca” is faithful to the book. The new production would have done well not to tinker with the plot, but, as you may have guessed, it does. Sure, the basics are there, but it’s the departures that rankle the nerves. Any new “Rebecca” must be driven by our sympathy for the main characters and our abhorrence of the villains.
Lily James’ heroine works adequately for much of the going, but as she cowers under the shadow of the dead Rebecca, she stumbles around Manderley like a little girl in high-heels. Armie Hammer’s Maxim is 100% oak—wooden to the core—and, in contrast to Olivier’s sartorial polish, his suits look as if they came right off the rack. Sam Riley’s Favel, though oily enough, lacks George Sanders’ suave confidence. As for Kristin Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers, she fares better, but her Danny is more walking cadaver than Anderson’s calculating Fury, and her love for her late mistress seems more matronly than lesbian (both acceptable interpretations).
Liberties in the denouement sprout like tares in a wheat field. The kindly but just Colonel Julyan is replaced for the worse by a prosecutorial Jacobin, Inspector Welch (Mark Lewis Jones), who somehow arrests and incarcerates Maxim. What to do? Any feminist can tell you: Mrs. de Winter to the rescue! She drives like a Grand Prix champion to London, looks up the “mysterious” doctor (on Harley Street, no less), steals the file, and hides to peruse it. When Welch catches her, she offers the defense that she didn’t tamper with the evidence, and the truth is presently revealed about Rebecca.
Manderley, however, does burn, Danny, whose fate is unclear in the book, throws herself off a cliff, and the de Winters decamp. Where to? Hitchcock’s movie leaves that alone, but Du Maurier’s book hints that they’re in Europe, generally avoiding the watering places and casinos. Not quite in our new version. We see Mrs. de W. in her chemise, residing in a seedy apartment, smoking a cigarette (liberated, indeed!) in front of her vanity mirror, with Maxim in his undershirt caressing her. Her voice-over narration tells us that she is a new woman and that they are happy in their new life slumming in Cairo. Happy, anonymous, tawdry, and, let’s hope, soon to be forgotten.