Page Vs. Screen: Rebecca

I rarely make these sorts of posts, but I finally watched this movie and have opinions, which I will fling out into the void that is the internet.

So last week I watched the film Rebecca, which came out on Netflix in 2020. I’ve read the book twice, and quite like it, so I was curious to see what the movie version was like.

And it was… interesting. Not entirely in a good way. In fact, the more I think about it, the more annoyed I am.

I’ll talk about the parts I liked first, before the real fun of this review begins.

(Also, there will be spoilers for both the book and film.)

I enjoyed the settings. Monte Carlo (which I’m aware is a real place, but still) and Manderley both look pretty much how I pictured them. The grounds around the house aren’t quite what I imagined, but were still beautiful and fit the rest of the movie’s aesthetic. Some of the outfits worn by the main character Mrs. De Winter (played by Lily James) are lovely. I didn’t know I like some of the fashions from the English upper class of the 1930s, but apparently I do.

I also think, for the most part, the casting was excellent. Danvers in particular was exactly how I imagined her. I think Lily James was far prettier than I pictured Mrs. De Winter, but her performance is pretty good overall. (It did, however, make Frank’s comment about Rebecca having being the “most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life” strange, with Lily James sitting right there next to him. No accounting for taste, I guess?) And everyone else was cast pretty well based on the descriptions from the book, so that was fun to see. My only quibble is that Maxim is supposed to be at least a decade older than Mrs. De Winter, but I guess I shouldn’t complain about them making an age difference smaller.

Lastly, there were so many small moments in this movie, especially during the first half, that shows that the creators actually read the book. And recalling my review of the so-called Artemis Fowl adaptation, this is not always the case, and so it was refreshing to see here. From the awful comments that Mrs. Van Hopper makes to the handkerchief in the old coat, from the notes passed in Monte Carlo to the breaking the porcelain figure, so many details are brought to life.

I just wished they’d managed to stick the landing. And by that, I mean it’s time for me to talk about the elements I didn’t like!

I think where this movie fails most is in the character of Maxim, and the pacing and content of the final act. And unfortunately, those are pretty vital to the story, and it frustrates me!

So when it comes to Maxim, I will say I liked how his relationship with the main character starts out. You can instantly tell that he truly sees her, as both a person and an equal, which is not how she’s been treated thus far. It’s nice to witness his respect and regard, which grows as he gets to know her. They got more intimate sooner, but it’s a very Hollywood decision and doesn’t really impact the story much, so I’m fine with it.

Where Maxim’s character starts to stray from the source, and thus to get worse, is when they return to Manderley. He’s uncomfortable being back here, and is unhappy with how it’s affecting his new wife, but I think it doesn’t quite translate to the screen well. I know what his mindset is because I read the book, but he really just comes off as a jerk. There’s a moment he murmurs in Mrs. De Winter’s ear that “I should never have brought you back here” but it just sounds like he’s angry at her, not at the situation. And James’ performance reinforces this interpretation, which is never refuted!

And it’s at this point of the film we come to the major turning point: the discovery of Rebecca’s boat and body, and the revelation of what really happened between her and Maxim. And, annoyingly, this is where the creators really failed.

Now, the creators incorporated some original bits of drama before this point, such as Rebecca’s former lover taking Mrs. De Winter riding, and her attempt to fire Danvers. These don’t bother me too much, as though they didn’t come from the source, they don’t feel counter to it either.

The same can’t really be said for how the final act of the film plays out.

The downward slide of this movie started with the scene where Maxim admits the truth to Mrs. De Winter. This conversation is supposed to serve two functions: to reveal the dramatic truth of Rebecca’s life and death, and to explain his behavior/allow him to be honest about his feelings for his new wife. But the film only covers the first, neglecting to establish the love between this couple. And I cannot figure out why they would have left this out, because it affects Mrs. De Winter’s character so drastically for the rest of the story. To leave it out is to leave out half of the motivation for her development, and therefore leaves the audience both confused and less than invested. Furthermore, it causes Maxim’s character to be terribly underdeveloped, and the actor’s performance wasn’t exactly blowing me away before this point as it was.

Honestly, I could go on and on about this scene and why it totally failed, but I won’t. Suffice to say, they left out the romantic confessions and the decision on both Maxim and his wife’s part to work together as a team, and the rest of the movie seriously suffers for it. Plus, it annoyed me, so here I am venting on the internet.

And the pacing after this point, ugh! It felt disorienting, jumping almost directly to the inquest. I did the math, and the movie covered almost a third of the book in around 25 minutes. Why?! I wanted them to draw out the tension about whether Maxim was going to go to jail, but instead it felt as if they wanted to speed through it as quickly as possible. Why sprint through what is supposed to be an agonizing series of events full of stress, determination, and obstacles?

The scene when evidence is found to exonerate Maxim also failed, to me. Mrs. De Winter goes on her own while Maxim is in prison (which didn’t happen in the book, by the way) and finds the evidence on her own. Perhaps this was changed to try to give Mrs. De Winter some independence and girl power energy or something, but that isn’t really the purpose of this plot point. The purpose is more to demonstrate that she and Maxim are on equal footing, with mutual trust, and so they work together. Their relationship contrasts that of Maxim and Rebecca. After having a miserable first marriage that was defined by secrets and lies, he now has a connection with an honest and kind woman who makes him happy and is his equal in capabilities and strength. But I guess they veered away from portraying that earlier, so instead we have this lackluster attempt to showcase Mrs. De Winter as a boss.

Now, some quick thoughts in no particular order: Nothing about the performance by Maxim’s actor is memorable. I didn’t like the depiction of the party. The sleepwalking scene was weird. The actor playing Jack Favell looks a little like Tony Stark’s father, and I didn’t like it. We didn’t need that final scene with Danvers; she’d made her point already. And I’m still annoyed by the last half of the movie!

In the end, this adaptation of Rebecca was so close to being great. The set design, costuming, and casting (mostly) are excellent. Many of the details of this story are very loyal to the book. It’s just the second half or so that seriously drops the ball. The core relationship is so underdeveloped as to not matter, to the plot or to the audience. The pacing in the last act is a total mess, and so many scenes here missed the mark entirely. I can’t really recommend this movie, but I do plan on watching the Hitchcock adaptation sometime! Surely that will be better.

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