A Tale of Three Rebeccas

16 Feb

Over the last few months, I have watched three different film versions of Rebecca, and read the book. This sounds like an obsession, but I assure you it’s not. It began innocently enough with my sister, my brother-in-law and myself all watching the new version of Rebecca, with Armie Hammer. (And as I check the spelling of his name online, I notice that some kind of scandal regarding him has just broken. I am accidentally topical, as ever. Also, I notice that his real name is Armand. If I was called Armand, I would not go around asking people to address me as Armie. But I digress.)

I was familiar with the Hitchcock version, of course, and (I thought) the book, so the new version was something of a let-down. However, it was the only version my sister had ever seen. Although she enjoyed the 2020 film well enough, I didn’t want that film to be the last word on the subject for her. It turned out that she had a DVD of a British mini-series of Rebecca starring Charles Dance and Emilia Fox, so we watched that too. And then, for the sake of completeness, I felt that we had to watch the Hitchcock version too. Somehow, my sister allowed herself to be persuaded to watch Rebecca three times in about two months, while I (re?)read the book by Daphne du Maurier and found that I didn’t remember it at all, apart from the opening paragraphs (“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again” etc.) which are quoted in practically every film version anyway. That allowed me to judge how close each version kept to the original, and where they departed. So after this excess of Rebecca, I may as well give you my impressions.

(These are not the only versions of Rebecca, by the way. There’s also a 1979 version with Jeremy Brett and Emilia Fox’s mother, which sounds interesting and is rated 8.3 on IMDB, but I think I should probably take a break from Rebecca for a while or it really could become an obsession.)

Rebecca (2020)

Mmm, those Mediterranean blues!

This gets a 6 on IMDB at the time of writing, which is not very impressive, especially for a film with a very expensive cast. Unfortunately, famous and good-looking actors don’t really help if you miscast them, and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter is one of the worst pieces of casting I have seen in recent years. A strapping young American with all the subtlety of a t-bone steak playing a tortured, reserved, middle-aged British aristocrat. Even his suits appeared miscast. The age difference, which is significant in the story, is not present here. In real life Hammer is only about three years older than Lily James (playing his bride), and he doesn’t look more than five years older than her in the film. At one point he mocks her about what she has done “in your young life” and just comes across as a patronising git.

Lily James is also not great casting. She is beautiful, sophisticated, self-possessed – all the things the second Mrs de Winter is not. Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers does work, however. In fact, Mrs Danvers is one of only two good things about this film, the other being how lovely the Riviera looks in glorious technicolor.

How close does it stick to the book? It changes a few things. There’s some sleepwalking, and a change in the way one character meets her end, but the main thing that changes is the atmosphere, which is not gothic or brooding at all, and the attitudes, which are a bit too 21st century. There’s a scene where Mrs Van Hopper asks the second Mrs de Winter if she has snared Maxim by “doing anything you shouldn’t?” The girl replies that she has no idea what Mrs Van Hopper means – but given that, in this version, she’s just been shagging him on the beach, this comes across as duplicitous rather than naive. It’s a small thing, but quite a big change to the character, and means that there can be no transformation from trembling girl to determined woman, because she was never a quivering little thing to start with.

Rebecca (1997)

Mind the (age) gap.

On to the second version. As a mini-series, the 1990s version has a bit more time to develop character and follow the plot – or even stick in some extra bits like a failed makeover on a cruise ship and the frankly baffling decision to include nudity and thereby presumably push up the certificate for no reason at all. The nudity is all the more jarring because Emilia Fox is the youngest-seeming of all the second Mrs de Winters, and she really does look little more than a schoolgirl. In fact, I thought she was the closest to the book, with her straight hair (the heroine is always complaining about her lank hair) and non-screen-siren look (sorry, Emilia). I also liked Mrs Van Hopper best in this version – she was less of a caricature than she sometimes is.

Maxim, though – oh dear! I mean, Charles Dance is a fine actor but he looks old enough here to be his wife’s grandfather, never mind her father. In fact there is about thirty years between the actors, and with Fox looking so young, their physical relationship just comes across as creepy. Still, at least he’s not Armie Hammer.

Despite the changes I mentioned, this is the most faithful version to the book. That’s not always a good thing, believe it or not, and a bit more artistic licence might have been effective. Plus the inquest sequence, although important, just seemed to go on forever. You think you’re at the end of the film after the big revelation (you either know what I mean here or you don’t – no spoilers) and then there’s another 40 minutes or so. But if you are unwilling or unable to read the book but wish you had read it, you won’t miss much with this version.

Rebecca (1940)

Ooh, the intensity!

But there’s faithful and faithful, isn’t there? Hitchcock was the master of suspense, which is important in Rebecca, a plot where the tension is cranked up almost to the point of insanity, but he is also a master of atmosphere. Quite a few things are changed in this version, with some events compressed and others added in (and there’s a fairly major change to what happens at Maxim’s last meeting with Rebecca) but the brooding atmosphere of oppression and horror is spot on. Some of the additions are excellent, particularly the scene where the couple have their first serious quarrel in the dark old mansion while in the background scenes from their sunny, carefree honeymoon are being played on their home projector. It brings out the suffocating presence of Manderley, the ancient house and grounds that, for all their beauty, are a burden and a curse. The house is almost a character in the novel and this is the version that brings it out best. It’s also the version where the presence of Rebecca is most palpable. Until I saw it again, I would have sworn that the first Mrs de Winter actually appeared in flashback, I can picture her so vividly.

The 1940 version also has the advantage of being made very close to the publication of the book (1938), and only a few years after its setting, so there are no difficulties with period clothing or vehicles or indeed attitudes – it’s just a straight-up contemporary film.

And the casting? Well, the second Mrs de Winter is far too beautiful again, with stunning hair, but she does have the necessary nervousness and naivety. Mrs Danvers is creepy, but to my mind not outstanding. But finally, Maxim is just right! He’s the right age for a start – much more grown up than his new bride, but still eligible and very handsome. You can see why she would fall for him, and at the same time think that he could not possibly be interested in her romantically, making his (famously terrible) proposal all the more effective. And come on, it’s Laurence Olivier! One of the finest actors who ever lived, he can say more with once glance than some actors (*cough*Hammer*cough*) can in a whole film.

One thing I did notice on watching again, though, washowincrediblyfasteveryonetalksin1930sfilms. You lose quite a lot when the actors don’t have time to draw breath between lines, let alone react. And while I don’t have a problem with black and white films, both Monaco and Cornwall look better in colour. But those are minor criticisms – there’s a reason why it’s the 1940 Rebecca that all other versions are measured against.

Bonus: Rebecca (1938)

And the book? It’s quite slow at the start and very abrupt at the end, but being told from the point of view of the second Mrs de Winter really helps, both in making her more three-dimensional and in making it less weird that you never learn her first name. And you feel like you’ve been to Manderley by the time you’ve finished, the description is so vivid. But if you have never read the book or seen any of the films, and you still don’t know what happens, just go ahead and choose any version before somebody spoils it for you! Ideally not the 2020 version, though.


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