Rebecca is the culmination of Netflix’s futile features
There is something truly depressing about films that prioritize style over substance. It makes you think of what could’ve been if only a film’s budget wasn’t entirely allocated to the production design and color grading. But with Netflix’s newly released Rebecca, it’s hard to argue that doing that would have made any difference at all. The film, directed by Ben Wheatley, fails to pull together a coherent screenplay, serviceable editing, or even two leads with enough chemistry to at least try not to disgrace its source material. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel, Wheatley’s Rebecca is utterly void of the nuance and complexity that makes Maurier’s story such a classic.
Rebecca follows a young woman who, after shortly meeting the inscrutable Mr. de Winter, becomes Mrs. de Winter. Their hurried marriage leads them to the Manderley mansion, the place that Mr. de Winter and his late wife, Rebecca, used to live. In a cold, dark, and closed-off place, with an obsessive housekeeper named Mrs. Danvers at her left and a seemingly hostile marriage at her right, Mrs. de Winter has to reckon with the wife who precedes her and the secret that her husband is keeping.
Gothic fiction is known for its melodrama, existential dread, passionate characters, and eerie darkness. Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a ghost story in a non-traditional sense. Its reputation as a definitive classic of Gothicism comes from its haunting themes of guilt, love, and suffocating gender roles. However, Wheatley’s Rebecca includes none of those former ideas as it shows little respect for the work being adapted. The throw-away lines by Mrs. Danvers about Rebecca barely scratch the surface of the themes of gender and womanhood. Wheatley is merely checking off a list of loose themes that feel more like a word-of-mouth version of the novel than an actual adaptation of it.
Because the film lacks any respect for its audience, one can’t help but feel as if they’re watching a multi-million-dollar version of Dora the Explorer. The film’s twists are so plainly presented and explicitly revealed that it destroys even the possibility of any audience curiosity. The theme of gender, the definition of who a woman should be, and class differences are glossed over to make room for the grandiose production design, costumes, and garishly color graded cinematography. The stark differences in composition between Monte Carlo and Manderley makes one almost physically wince. The brightened yellows of Monaco on top of an Instagram-like filter creates an unbelievably bland look to an already washed out scene. Blindingly lit sets, the same three types of yellows in each frame, and the cast’s unappealing wardrobe reveals that there is no real dimension whatsoever to the film. It’s a pity Ben Wheatley was so focused on the film’s stylization, he may have forgotten that he needed to direct his actors.
Lily James, as Mrs. de Winter, deserves credit as the sole reason why this film is at least watchable. She is believable in her evolution from the innocent girl we meet to the confident woman she becomes. However, it is difficult to create chemistry when your co-star’s performance is barely existent. Armie Hammer, as the elusive Maxim de Winter, gives one of the most uninvolved and apathetic performances I’ve ever seen. While Mr. de Winter is notorious for being hard to read, by the time the film reaches its climax and Mr. de Winter is supposedly pouring his heart out to his wife, Hammer chooses to be utterly emotionless. Even when he is at his most angry, seeing his wife dressed up as Rebecca at the masquerade ball, Hammer seems so uninvolved that one wonders if he knew a take was happening. His shouts that should make Mrs. de Winter cry come off as a rehearsal for a community theater acting class. It seems unfair that James, the co-lead, is putting her all into a performance that will never be celebrated because her scene partner has decided that a phoned-in performance is worthwhile of everyone else’s time.
The ending of the film, which takes us a step further from where the novel ends, is a perfect example of what a Netflix original film aims for: no questions left unanswered, and no lingering thoughts left for the viewer. Although the novel ends with their house, Manderley, burning to the ground, the film sees to it that the audience sees a happily-ever-after that is in direct opposition to the message that du Maurier ends her story with. Mr and Mrs. de Winter celebrate their happiness and newly purified marriage in Cairo, Egypt before the film fades to black and three more Netflix films pop onto your screen for you to click on. There is no nuance or question of what happens to these characters. The ending, which comes and goes, is merely a bridge for the platform to sell you more of their bland and half-baked features in another browser window.
With Rebecca, Netflix adds to its canon of unambiguous and on-the-nose storytelling. Churning out films that seek to appeal to mass audiences without any plan to produce films that challenges their audience, Rebecca is just the latest example of the streaming era’s goal: descent into creating formulaic media that will result in more viewership. Contrary to Netflix’s belief, I believe that it’s okay for a film to leave questions unanswered. It creates healthy dialogue between the viewer and the film. It results in cult classics and cinematic staples and intelligent conversation; what cinema is meant to do. There is something so special about thinking about a film days after you’ve watched it. It’s even more special to watch it again only to find something new to pick up. Rebecca does not give audiences that courtesy.