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Review of the Netflix Adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 'Rebecca'

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” (1).

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier has one of the most iconic opening lines in literature, so I was curious to see if and how it was integrated into the 2020 Netflix adaptation. Luckily, fans of this epic first chapter will be pleased to know that the movie opens and closes with the dream-like lines.

The film’s visuals, particularly the settings and costumes, seamlessly transport the viewer to the 1930s. Monte Carlo looks like a dream as Maxim’s champagne coloured car hugs curving roads and Manderley matches the grandeur depicted in the novel. The details in the abundance of gilt-framed oil paintings, sprawling wood hallways, and an envy-inducing library make the gossip in Monte Carlo (and Maxim’s obsession with the family seat) understandable.

Although a small role overall, Mrs. Van Hopper’s wardrobe is exceptional with strings of pearls and flower-patterned fabric, and Ann Dowd (Handmaid’s Tale) makes you hate her as much as you do when reading the novel. On the return to England, hat-envy is real as we are introduced to Maxim’s sister Beatrice (played by the amazing Keeley Hawes) and witness the slowly evolving wardrobe of the protagonist (represented by Lily James), which signifies her transformation (more on this below).

What makes du Maurier’s novel exceptional is the protagonist’s interiority, her childlike reading of situations that lead to the misunderstanding of, and lack of confidence at, Manderley. In one passage she compares herself to a dog when she curls up to Maxim and he pats her on the head. The first-person narration ensures a limited view of the events, and one-sided observation of others:

“He did not belong to me at all, he belonged to Rebecca. He still thought about Rebecca. He would never love me because of Rebecca. She was in the house still, as Mrs. Danvers had said…” (261).

“I understood it all. Frank knew, but Maxime did not know that he knew. And we all stood there, looking at one another, keeping up these little barriers between us" (341).

How could this be done when adapting the novel to the screen? Luckily, it isn’t through voiceovers. I really like Lily James—from Downton Abbey to her reading of Atwood’s Testaments—she has a very 'English rose' air about her, and she embodies the novel's protagonist as an ingénue. She is so convincing, in fact, that I found it more frustrating to watch her cower when she arrives at Manderley than I did when reading the novel.

In the book Mrs. Danvers is described as “… tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment white, set on a skeleton’s frame” (74) and Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral) was made to look like this description with her prim and heavy makeup. Her obsessive love for Rebecca is well portrayed with a particularly intense scene in front of a closet of mirrors.

And lastly, we must talk about the love-interest-with-a-secret Maxim de Winter who is portrayed by Armie Hammer (Man from U.N.C.L.E., On the Basis of Sex). While certainly handsome, and worthy of the Monte Carlo gossipmongers, I don’t feel he fit one of the greatest male descriptions I’ve ever found in a novel:

“If one could but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, white lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long-distant past – a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in shadows of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy” (15).

Someone a bit more Byronic would have fit the bill. While James and Hammer make a very good-looking couple, overall Maxim’s role is minimal when compared to his presence in the novel. While some of the suspense in the film comes across as cheesy, it is the charged scenes between James and Scott Thomas that are able to maintain the novel’s creepiness on screen.

Despite the missing Happy Valley, generally the movie remains true to the novel with some dialogue pulled straight from the pages of Rebecca. However, the film begins to deviate when we get to the blackmail scene with Favell, leading to the dénouement and the discovery of Rebecca’s medical file. Without spoilers, the deviations here really push the protagonist to step into the role of heroine and highlight for the viewer her transformation into a confident woman. From her actions, to her dialogue (some taken from Maxim’s mouth in the novel), to her gentrified tweed power suit, the film artfully demonstrates this evolution.

As the film concludes, we get more closure than du Maurier gives us in her novel. Where the novel leaves us with a glance of Manderley burning in the distance, the film adaptation takes the viewer to the seaside house for a final confrontation.

Overall, this film is worth watching for those who enjoy Rebecca. Even those unfamiliar with du Maurier’s novel will enjoy the suspense depicted in the Netflix adaptation, making it an ideal October film.


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