Lily James plays a lady’s companion, a woman paid to accompany her mistress as she travels about Europe, but when Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) gets sick, her companion, used to attending to her mistress’s every need, suddenly has a lot of time on her hands but few options to fill it. As paid staff, Lily James’ character isn’t allowed to use the hotel’s amenities intended for guests. Luckily, the handsome if brooding Maximus de Winter (Armie Hammer) comes to her aid. A mysterious young widower, Max and his beautiful estate Manderley are often gossiped about, and it is whispered he has been terrorized by grief since his wife’s sudden passing a year ago. But on outings with the lady’s companion, he’s a perfect gentleman and charming company. Sadly, Mrs. Van Hopper eventually recovers only to catch wind of her companion’s secret rendez-vous, and she immediately books them passage back to New York. Facing a sudden goodbye, Max de Winter proposes to the young, naïve girl of lowly station, and they share a passionate honeymoon before he brings her home to Manderley.
Rebecca is a ghost story, written by Daphne du Maurier and newly adapted for Netflix by Ben Wheatley. The new Mrs. de Winter is haunted by two malevolent forces. First, the house itself, which is demanding in its size and responsibilities, and isolating too. Manderley is spooky because it is simply too large for just two people. It never feels like it belongs to her, in part because it’s been passed down for generations by the de Winter family, and partly because Rebecca, the dearly departed former Mrs. de Winter, had so confidently left her mark. Manderley is also a symbol of a growing class divide. It reminds us that not long ago, our young protagonist was staff herself, but even as a lady’s maid she’d never worked in or even seen such a massive estate. As its current mistress, she is uncomfortable in the position and feels out of place among Max’s friends and family. And then there is the spectre of Rebecca herself. The new bride experiences two very different encounters when it comes to Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the housekeeper, seems nearly obsessed with her, and speaks reverentially of Rebecca. Rebecca’s routines and methods and preferences are considered by Mrs. Danvers to be the ‘right’ ones, and the new Mrs. de Winter can never quite measure up to a ghost. Max, on the other hand, will never speak of her, and loses his temper when the subject is broached. His new wife is cowed by how much he must still love Rebecca to be so sensitive, and realizes that there are perhaps 3 people to this marriage.
It’s a brilliant gothic exercise in gas-lighting and gender roles, and Ben Wheatley’s added some drop dead visuals to the mix, taking full advantage of every second they’re not in that house. It kind of feels that Ben Wheatley, known for his twisted, psychological horror films, went in the opposite direction, flexing new muscles with a talkier script and dazzling production values. However, because it was Ben Wheatley attached to direct, I imagined dizzying psychological warfare, and on that he under-delivered. Directing for a broader Netflix audience for the first time, he’s erred in favour of conservative and pretty. But Du Maurier’s source material is actually a good match for Wheatley’s usual directing style. I would have loved to see him seize on the madness, make Manderley as sinister and foreboding as High-Rise. Manderley is haunted, if not by Rebecca’s ghost, by secrets and resentments and insecurity. The house feels like a prison, and gender norms are the new bride’s shackles. Between her husband and the housekeeper, she is made to feel crazy. There is so much potential for psychological horror that went wasted.
Ben Wheatley, you are a talented man with a unique directorial voice. The world is improved by your personal brand of weird, and I wish that Netflix money hadn’t robbed you of the courage to just be you.