Review: ‘Rebecca’ is a sumptuous romantic thriller and a great new adaptation

“I don’t believe in ghosts.” This is the defiant declaration by the future Mrs de Winter as she heads toward her new life. She came to Monte Carlo as a ladies maid and is leaving as the future wife of a wealthy landowner, and her lady has warned her that she will be haunted by the ghost of her fiancés’ first wife. Ghost aren’t real in the literal sense but what she doesn’t realize is that we can be haunted by the departed none the less.

Rebecca is a new adaptation of the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier, which follows a young woman, after she spends a whirlwind summer with her handsome suitor, settling into her new life as Mrs De Winter, the lady of a large estate in 1930s England. While her summer was idyllic her new life quickly turns into something else as the memory of her husband’s first wife permeates every aspect of her new life.

Each day that passes the remembrance by all those around her –new friends, new family, and new staff– haunts her further and drives her slowly toward madness. Is that haunting simply because she was larger than life, or is it something more insidious?

The answer, of course, is something you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and that, dear reader, is something I recommend you do.

Ben Wheatley is a director with an eye for composition, and it turns out that a story set in the 1930s with gorgeous period costumes and detail is the perfect venue for his talent for exquisite production value. Wheatley, along with cinematographer Laurie Rose, create a sumptuous atmosphere in each scene through solid camera work and effectively perfect, old school lighting.

There is one scene toward the end, in particular, set against a sunset in a London street, that made me actually exclaim out loud it was so beautiful.

Wheatley also has a talent for getting great performances out of his actors as well, and Rebecca is no exception. Armie Hammer is his usual reliable self. He classic good looks and frame serve him well, and he is perfectly cast as Mr de Winter, a man whose emotional state regularly turns on a dime. Still, the real highlight of the film is the duelling performances of Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James / Rebecca
Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James / Rebecca

James is a rising talent, and the film asks a lot of her. Mrs de Winter’s descent into frustration and paranoia is a deliberately paced one, and James sells every moment of it. The simultaneous transformation away from naiveté is compelling at every moment as she slowly learns the details of her predecessor’s life and influence.

The film belongs in many ways to Scott Thomas though, whose malevolent Mrs Danvers commands the screen in every scene she is in. Scott Thomas is a brilliant actor and has that certain British affect that can turn a question as innocuous as “does he brush your hair?” into “you will never be good enough, and you will never find happiness.” Mrs Danvers is already a classic movie antagonist, and Scott Thomas’s performance of the character is delightful.

At about two hours long, the deliberate pacing might turn a few of you away, but there are no wasted frames. Every moment of the film is necessary for the characters and story, and the characters and story are sumptuous and engrossing.

Ghosts aren’t real, but they can haunt us all the same. The memory of those that came before can be beautiful or twist you into madness. The real question isn’t whether they exist; it’s whether they can be overcome.

Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca will debut globally on Netflix next Wednesday, October 21st