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'Rebecca' Review: Comparison kills

Not believing in ghosts doesn't save you from the ones you create yourself.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in 'Rebecca.'
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

Ben Wheatley's 'Rebecca' manages to be three separate movies in a way that works out to its benefit.

For

  • 💃🏻A haunt, a drama, and a mystery all rolled into one.
  • 💃🏻Solid performances all around.
  • 💃🏻Lovely cinematography.
  • 💃🏻Mrs. de Winter's journey is a worthy watch.

Against

  • 💃🏻Three stories in one works, but the film's runtime doesn't.

It all begins with a meet-cute. A young girl, not so much as a graced with a name (but played by incomparable Lily James) fusses to make reservations for her boss so that the decidedly awful Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) may “accidentally” meet the recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Instead, our flustered heroine drops her coin purse. She’s helped as she hastily picks up her scattered change by none other than Mr. de Winter himself. There’s really no way for her to have known what would come next.

Rebecca tells a myriad of tales during its runtime, all of which are tied to Maxim’s mysterious late wife. The first is one of love. As their brief time together passes, Max and the girl find themselves enamored by one another. When Mrs. Van Hopper tries to come between them by way of whisking her charge off to New York, Maxim asks her to marry him instead. Breathless, confused, and brimming with oxytocin, the two head off on their honeymoon before returning to the de Winter estate, the sprawling Manderley house.

And so, the girl is gifted a name: Mrs. de Winter.

The trouble is, that name already belonged to someone. Rebecca de Winter’s ghost haunts the halls of Manderley as stubbornly as it haunts the suddenly sleep walking Maxim. Her presence can be felt everywhere, tied to his fierce love to his first wife, and the dedication of Manderley’s head of staff, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Mrs. de Winter doesn’t believe in ghosts, but Rebecca masterfully outlines how much comparison can haunt someone as persistently as any specter. Though she is madly in love with her husband, she quickly starts to wonder if a poor orphan could ever amount to as much as first believed Max saw her to be. To make matters worse, the lord of the house seems to be hiding not just something, but everything from his young wife. She doesn’t start to learn about Rebecca’s questionable death until Mrs. Danvers and members of the staff start beginning to let things slip.

As the comparisons grow, so do the manic questions. Constant queries wrack her mind as she finds herself buried in mystery. Who can she trust? Who truly loves her? Will she ever be able to escape from Rebecca? The answer to all of this is no, of course. Because Mrs. de Winter is only being compared to Rebecca by herself. Then again, there could be a couple of other nefarious players help stoke the fires of her uncertainty.

Rebecca feels like three movies all tied into one. Usually, such a thing would be to a film’s detriment. However, in this case, Ben Wheatley manages to make it work. In the film’s many twists and turns from romance to haunting to drama it never loses sight of the fact that this is Mrs. de Winter’s story. While the ready for marriage in a week aspect is a bit out of date for modern audiences, the chemistry between James and Hammer burns white hot, even while you question Mr. de Winter's trustworthiness. Even better, we eventually see James’ Mrs. de Winter grow into her own amidst the haunts and otherwise constant chaos of Manderley.

While Armie Hammer and Lily James are both masters at playing wistfully in love and sometimes lost to the madness of it all, it’s Kristin Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers who steals the show. Her fierce devotion motivates all things throughout the narrative. Rooted into the stalwart stewardess is an unwavering love that drives her in all things, despite her apparently cold heart.

Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose capture the beauty of Manderley with ease. Its sprawling landscapes and unforgiving sea are both captured with a level of reverence and respect. There are also quite a few fun shots, with Mrs. de Winter being washed in red at the peak of what seems like insanity and the Ball of it all mid-film.

If there are any complaints about Rebecca, it’s one that you’ve heard time and time again about Netflix fare: it’s just too damn long. I’m the type of gal who will happily sit through a three-hour movie if it needs to be that long, but this one simply doesn’t justify its two hours. Could have lived without the creepy cousin extended horseback riding scene, as well as several others.

That mild complaint aside, Rebecca is an admirable - and quite different - remake. At the very least, you’ll have a lovely time watching Armie Hammer and Lily James play off one another in a haunted, frightened and sometimes frantic kind of love. She may have married too fast, but the growth in Mrs. de Winter’s story is worth a few dragging scenes and a temper tantrum or two.