All Sex and No Substance: Ben Wheatley’s Disappointing 'Rebecca'
(Warning: Contains mild spoilers!)
This year, streaming platforms took over as the home of blockbuster cinema, meaning films made with cinema release in mind appeared first on the small screen. One such film was Ben Wheatley’s Netflix-produced Rebecca (2020), which was met with resounding disappointment. Wheatley’s other films burst at the seams with fierce performances, wildly strange visuals, and a dark comedy like no other – how did he manage to make Rebecca into a film with so little meat on its bones?
The novel’s infamous opening line is famously evocative: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is a timid young woman who marries Maxim de Winter, a handsome, intimidating widower with a fair few skeletons in the closet – Manderley is his house. The titular Rebecca was Maxim’s first wife, and her shadow looms large over the new Mrs de Winter, not least due to the fact that the uncanny housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, has perfectly preserved Rebecca’s bedroom and possessions. To Mrs Danvers, Manderley is a physical reminder of Rebecca’s absence, and Mrs de Winter’s presence an insult to Rebecca’s perfect ghost. We learn over time that Rebecca was charming, even manipulative, and decidedly sexually liberated – in the eyes of her husband, disgustingly so.
The arc of Wheatley’s film attempts to sex up the narrative, insofar as it suggests the erotic connection between the de Winters - never explicitly mentioned in the novel - is more powerful than memories of the past and the traumatic events at Manderley, and thus, more powerful than Rebecca. The film’s psychosexual intricacies are played out with Downton Abbey–style heavy breathing and misty lens flares, exemplified by an implicit lakeside sex scene which occurs at the beginning of the film. This scene is mirrored by the film’s ending, where the couple embrace passionately in their ‘stuffy little room in Cairo’.
Perhaps Wheatley emphasises Rebecca’s erotically charged aspects to dramatise Mrs de Winter’s story as one of sexual liberation. Yet the relationship between the de Winters does not suggest unbridled sexual attraction. It’s barely possible to believe they can bear each other’s company. Armie Hammer’s Maxim walks around in lavish suits looking moody, barking gruffly at poor Lily James as Mrs de Winter, who stares wide-eyed in response. Gothic romances, of course, have their fair share of troubled, haughty men. But in order to understand how Mrs de Winter is so swept away by Maxim, the audience should share the sense that he is attractive, or mysterious, or captivating, or provocative. Instead, he comes across as a well-dressed, but blank, bully.
The film is flawed, too, in its visual richness. It seems impossibly polished; performances become window dressing. Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers is outdone by her severe black shoulder pads and unmoving hair. When her character is on screen, Manderley appears oppressively grey and dark - hardly a subtle way to indicate that she’s not a nice character. Olivia Laing describes how, if you have read Rebecca, ‘you have no doubt wandered Manderley in your mind, passing through the tunnel of scarlet rhododendrons, […] entering vicariously into moods of love and terror’. Wheatley seems to have lifted Du Maurier’s rich imagery and interpreted it far too literally, turning the novel into a series of beautiful, lifeless frames.
Wheatley has shown he is not afraid of the dark power of sex in his other films, High Rise (2015) and Sightseers (2012). In High Rise, Wheatley directs scenes of sex and sexuality which are transgressive, alarming, and totally weird – they jolt the audience out of their comfort zone, echoing the alarming power imbalances at work in the film. His Rebecca, in comparison, feels sanitised and empty. Perhaps it’s not something I would have been so bothered by if he had retained the ambiguity of the novel’s ending. It’s paradoxical, but by making the sexual tension of the novel more explicit, the film loses the subtleties of the original story.
Rebecca is in part a fable of patriarchal hypocrisy: Maxim’s previous wife is shamed for her sexuality, and yet he, particularly in Wheatley’s adaptation, seems to use sex to manipulate his new lover. In the film, the couple end up together, and apparently, happy. The opportunity to confront the sexual power dynamics of the original novel through a modern lens is not taken.
Rebecca, too, should evoke the audience’s sympathy. She is punished for her sexual liberation and infidelity, and is eventually killed due to the paranoia her sexuality incites. Some clues to her past are revealed through the character of Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who is implied to have had a relationship with her. Sam Riley as Favell brings some much needed intensity to Wheatley’s film, flirting with the unspoken fact of Rebecca’s power as a sexual being, and flirting too with the flustered Mrs de Winter. In a fight scene with Maxim, his emotional defence of Rebecca is a welcome respite from Maxim’s dull, cruel intensity, and renders Favell one of the film’s more sympathetic characters. But ending the film with the new Mrs de Winter literally embracing Maxim silences any notion that Rebecca’s fate, or the treatment of her sexuality, was unjust.
Wheatley nods to queer readings of the character of Mrs Danvers, making her attraction to Rebecca explicit at the film’s close. As a modern adaptation, Mrs Danvers’ desire for Rebecca does not have to remain ambiguous, which should be to its benefit. Wheatley has the chance to portray one of literature’s most complex queer-coded relationships in its totality. Instead, the film delivers a sanitised take. A scene where Mrs Danvers shows Mrs de Winter how she has preserved Rebecca’s room in perfect stillness is beautiful, illuminated by eerie blue light, but feels strangely hollow. Mrs Danvers’ queerness, too, does not seem to ring true emotionally, as though her character has not quite been rounded out.
I began writing this article before it became public knowledge that Armie Hammer has a history of sexual manipulation, and while I won’t go into detail about that topic here, I want to refer to Hunter Harris’ excellent essay wherein she notes that Hammer will likely ‘defend himself, retreat for a year, and then get hired again, because that’s how this industry works’. Aptly, perhaps, Wheatley’s Rebecca highlights an unwillingness to explore the murky depths of sexual power dynamics, and instead tells us a story we’ve been told far too many times: women like Rebecca, who are aware of their sexual powers, are diminished, shamed, and destroyed, while men can seduce their way to whatever they want, time and time again. Du Maurier’s Rebecca is not just a story about a young woman becoming sexually liberated – it is a story about the gendered relationship between sexual innocence and sexual knowledge.
In this limp attempt at a rewrite, we never get a glimpse of how sex shapes every twist and turn of the story. Wheatley takes advantage of 21st Century mindsets to make explicit what was unspoken in the novel, and yet seems to miss the mark. There’s no real exploration of the messy, emotional, psychological potential of sex – but it is this very mess that Rebecca’s influence is predicated upon. The film, although beautiful in its visuals, skims the surface of the story, failing to scratch at the ugliness beneath.
Ray Sims is a filmmaker and tentative writer. She likes writing about films, she likes making them even more, but she mostly sits around watching them. Please send her film recommendations as she has a pathetically short MUBI watch list and has not seen enough good films. You can find her on twitter as @yar_smis.