What reason could there be for a new movie version of “Rebecca”? The Daphne du Maurier novel (still forever young at 82) was long ago filmed, impeccably so, in chic black-and-white by Alfred Hitchcock. Nonetheless, here we are with a new one on Netflix, starring Lily James and Armie Hammer, so I guess I’d better come up with some reasons. So we all, during this autumn of our discontent, could gaze at lavish Monaco hotel suites, “Downton Abbey”-ish English manor houses and ocean waves picturesquely crashing on a rocky beach, all in lush color? So that Kristin Scott Thomas could slink around looking malevolent as the scary housekeeper Mrs. Danvers? So Hammer could demonstrate that it is possible to look handsome in a banana-yellow linen suit?
Having now watched the new “Rebecca,” those are the only reasons I can come up with. Are they enough? Not really. This “Rebecca” is neither awful nor good; it’s just kind of there. I enjoyed it, because these days I will watch anything that involves a well-appointed drawing room, but it’s the fleetingest of mild pleasures; I barely remembered anything about it the next day.
If you don’t know the story — in which case, have I got a great novel and classic movie to recommend to you — here’s a quick recap. It’s the 1930s, and a very young woman (James) whose first name we never learn, is traveling in Monaco as a companion to a wealthy, peevish matron (Ann Dowd) when she meets Maxim de Winter (Hammer), a handsome, brooding widower. After a whirlwind romance, the new Mrs. de Winter is brought to Maxim’s seaside manor, Manderley — where she receives a chilly greeting from Mrs. Danvers, who adored the previous Mrs. de Winter: the late, impossibly beautiful Rebecca. As the new Mrs. de Winter desperately tries to establish herself as the lady of the house, she finds the place haunted by Rebecca and begins to wonder if, as Mrs. Danvers says in the original movie, “the dead can come back and watch the living.”
James, best known as Cousin Rose on “Downton Abbey,” gives a fine performance despite being miscast; she’s a bit too old (I always picture the awkward young Mrs. de Winter in her very early 20s; James is 31) and has a naturally vibrant presence that she has to work hard to tamp down. But if she’s a little wrong for the part, Hammer is every kind of wrong — he doesn’t seem to have it in him to play a man of mystery, and despite being about the same age Lawrence Olivier was in the Hitchcock version, he seems far too young and bland. That yellow suit, alas, is empty.
Scott Thomas is, of course, inspired casting, and her Mrs. Danvers is a treat; she’s all arched eyebrows and eye-rolling and malevolent glances and Harry Potter-like Apparating. (Mrs. Danvers is always right where you don’t expect her, like in a random hallway in the middle of the night still wearing her skirt suit. I think she’s part witch.) But she isn’t really on screen that much. Why Netflix didn’t just put her at the center of the movie and call it “Mrs. Danvers” I don’t know, as I would absolutely watch that.
So unfortunately this “Rebecca,” Scott Thomas aside, comes down to the pleasures of its setting: that palatial house with its checkerboard floors and Rebecca’s hermetically sealed art deco bedroom, while the waves roar below. We can’t travel these days, so it’s fun to wallow in the scenery and its vivid colors. Want a great movie? Go watch the original “Rebecca” instead, but you probably knew that already.