Ben Wheatley directs Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas in this remake of the Hitchcock / Du Maurier gothic romance where a young bride is haunted by the overwhelming reputation of her wealthy husband’s dead first wife.
Big fan of the Joan Fontaine version and have just finished the book in prep for this release. It definitely is a change of pace for Kill List’s Wheatley. A massive step up in budget which he deploys masterfully. This is a sumptuous looking film with few corners cut. In fact, in terms of classic wealth porn and creepy addendums, he and his team adds additional corners just for ornate overkill. Visually there is no restraint. I was seduced by this film’s commitment to dazzling period costume and ominous decoration. Suitably James and Hammer are both extremely fuckable wall hanging to display all these perfectly tailored fabrics and rich trappings off of. They actually don’t struggle with the psychological depth of the text too much but both are possibly a little too naturally virile and charismatic to truly convince of their characters’ inherent paranoia, inadequacy and guilt.
It is actually the own goal of Mrs Danvers that doesn’t light up the screen. On paper, Scott Thomas should be masterful casting but she only make a suitable fist of the inscrutable antagonist. She is performing in the long but still woundingly recent shadow of Lesley Manville’s Phantom Thread powerhouse, a true Danvers in all but name. And pales by unfortunate comparison.
The movie sputters somewhat in the second half because of this, feels like a redundant exercise in tracing. But I was very much caught up in the initial seduction. Wheatley immerses us in a world that both us and his protagonist feel like interlopers in. The fractal editing, where scenes interlace into each other with elliptical frames, add to the heady immersive fantasy as we become Manderley’s new lady of the house.
Spoilers – This version is best approached as if we are sharing a lonely poor girl’s Monte Carlo wet dream. Following the late night maze of her dirty fancy. She wants to marry a rich young widower but realises she might be inferior to the gorgeous society wife he has lost… so she conjures a masturbatory mystery in her cramped single bed where the dead wife is a formidable but eventually beatable bitch champion, where she can completely own her upper class stud and where she can outgrow her timid virginal inferiority to prove herself the better of both imagined parties. The dead Rebecca is superhuman in her desirability but such a rotten egg (just look at that eventual diagnosis of her womb) that their shared husband had to murder her. How’s that for putting yourself up on a pedestal? The narrative our plain Jane humps her pillow to eventually crowns her more bloody loveable than the most gorgeous, manipulative whore that ever lived! She even casts the villain as her own likely future… her reality is she is the paid help. She’s far less likely to become the blushing bride to a fortune of indentured posh boy dickings as she is to ending up a lady’s companion turned bitter, controlling house servant. More spoilers – but the dream ends with her already dead rival disgraced, her own fate immolated and her prize trapped in an eternal summer holiday of hotel fucking and terrace breakfasts.
This interpretation understand the text really well but the thrills and revelations feel glutenous and heatless as a cold cut buffet once we get to Manderley. You’d think Wheatley could master the unravelling of the murderous guilty dream somewhat better but he has used all his strengths on the initial romance. He’s exhausted after getting us primed for that whirlwind first fuck. The scandalous revelations that follow pour flat and lack bite. It all unspools rather perfunctorily once we are shown our new unerotic bedroom. Still everyone looks far too over-qualified for this not to be well worth a watch.
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