Rebecca review – overdressed and underpowered romantic thriller | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

Ben Wheatley’s take on the Daphne du Maurier story has moments of spectacle and disquiet but hunky Armie Hammer is miscast as the troubled widower

The star is the suit. Armie Hammer’s three-piece is an outrageous showstopper that upstages everything and everyone in its bold shade of Colman’s-mustard-slash-baby-poo. Hammer even at one stage accessorises it with the same colour tie. This is a suit permanently ready for its closeup. It’s a suit that would have intimidated George Melly. Hammer fills out that suit as tightly as if both Vinkelvoss twins were in it at the same time. At night, he must keep it in its own climate-controlled glass case, like Iron Man. This suit deserves its own trailer, its own agent, its own sex tape. Perhaps this film is its sex tape.

But wait. Surely an English gentleman of the inter-war years at leisure in the south of France would not wear the same suit two days in succession, the way Hammer controversially does here? Well, it’s a sartorial bêtise that gives all of us a second chance to swoon over Armie’s fabulous whistle. He even models it on the homeward journey. But would he also really drive a gold-coloured Bentley that clashes with the tailoring?

This is the new version of the classic 1938 Daphne du Maurier mystery thriller Rebecca, which had its first legendary film version from Alfred Hitchcock, with Laurence Olivier as the wealthy widowed Englishman Max de Winter – handsome, lonely, frigidly obsessed with the memory of his dead wife Rebecca and summering on the Cote d’Azur. On an opaque whim, he takes a liking to the pretty, timid little ladies’ companion that he meets in a hotel, unforgettably played by Joan Fontaine, and abruptly proposes: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!”

He takes her back to his lovely Cornish house, Manderley, where the poor young bride is bullied and gaslit by the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, who herself toxically venerates Rebecca. The second Mrs de Winter’s first name is famously unmentioned, obliterated by the sheer power of her predecessor. I like to think that Pablo Larraín’s forthcoming film about Diana Spencer’s married life will be called Camilla.

The terribly corny publicity stills and trailer released for this new film have caused it to be much mocked. Actually, that isn’t quite fair. Rebecca 2.0 is sometimes quite enjoyable in all its silliness and campiness and brassiness, and in some ways, gets closer to the narrative shape of the original novel than the Hitchcock film, which rather truncated the third act.

Manderley itself has been Downtonised into a colossal stately home with an absurdly large staff. Lily James is the new Mrs de Winter and she has sweetness and charm resistant to condescension. But in this film, the problem is Max – who is transformed into an obvious hunk. Hammer has seven times Olivier’s body mass, and he does not have his cold English abruptness or his suicidal misery. Hammer just looks too candid and upfront.

It’s not quite that he doesn’t have Olivier’s style in the role: he is just too forthright, too cornfed, patently unwounded – and, crucially, he doesn’t look like a man with a secret. James carries off her part insouciantly enough, for all that their affair is too obviously sexed up. As Mrs Danvers, Kristin Scott Thomas has a way of pursing her lips that would turn fresh milk into uranium and she gives every line a gimlet jab of contempt.

It’s a shame that Ben Wheatley didn’t attempt anything like Hitchcock’s legendary suspense scene in France when the future second Mrs de Winter is ordered by her employer to pack for New York and she almost has to leave before Max can propose. But for all that, Wheatley creates moments of spectacle and disquiet, especially when poor Mrs de Winter is tricked by Danvers into disgracing herself at the fancy dress ball, and she succumbs to an ecstasy of self-hate that the unspeakable housekeeper wants to exploit.

You can feel Wheatley (the creator of psychological chillers Kill List and A Field in England) wanting to submit to the full bacchanalian horror of this sequence, and yet the story itself won’t let him. This Rebecca leaves us with a secondary mystery – why precisely Wheatley wanted to do it. The thorn of pain has been snipped off.

  • Rebecca is in cinemas from 16 October and on Netflix from 21 October.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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