Rebecca review: taut and tense psychological thriller

Recently married to the widowed Maxim de Winter, his new wife finds herself haunted by his mysterious past.

Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas

“I don’t believe in ghosts!” Lily James’ nameless character proclaims before she marries Armie Hammer’s mysterious, reclusive Maxim de Winter. Correct though she may be, that doesn’t prevent the shadow of Maxim’s late wife, the eponymous Rebecca, casting an ominous grey cloud over his sprawling English mansion, Manderley.

Rebecca unfolds as what begins as the seed of doubt within Mrs de Winter’s mind as to her suitability for Maxim takes root and ensnares her in its torturous grip. With every person she encounters reinforcing the notion that Rebecca rose above the trifling constraints of mankind to be a perfect, doting, beautiful, charismatic wife to Maxim, coupled with his erratic behaviour and the machinations of the devious, calculating Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), Mrs de Winter finds herself haunted far more effectively than a mere ghost could achieve.

Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, and already subject to a 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, which won two Academy Awards, including Best Film, perhaps the weight of expectation not only plagues Mrs de Winter, but this adaptation in general. With the so-called “Master of Suspense” at the helm, the 1940s version garnered much appreciation for its gothic, unsettling and tense nature so it’s rather inevitable that comparisons are going to be drawn between this incredibly beloved work of art and the new, glitzy, Netflix-backed and funded production directed by Ben Wheatley.

Yet, the strength of the source material, buoyed by James’ capable performance and some inspired visuals really help maintain the tension throughout. There is the sense of something sinister unfolding at Manderley, even though the audience (or at least the audience unfamiliar with the book or the previous film version) are unaware of what precisely it is. Mrs de Winter’s gradual decline is indicated through James’ increasingly fragile and brittle performance, perpetually looking as if she is mere moments away from a breathless collapse, along with frenetic, unstable cinematography and surreal lighting that conjure the idea of something mysterious, magical and macabre summoned from the depths of hell itself. The antechamber into Rebecca’s perfectly maintained accommodation being a seemingly infinite mirrored void perfectly demonstrates the isolation of Mrs de Winter’s predicament, and her dream sequence in which she is swallowed by vines, almost as if the walls of Manderley themselves have turned against her really heighten the tension.

What’s more, the entire film looks sleek and lavish. Netflix’s budget clearly stretches a long way, with Manderley looking impressive and opulent, as well as austere. The bleary, bleak cliffs and the turbulent, irate sea only serve to enhance the danger and the mystery of the incredible house too.

With brilliant acting performances from all, as well as a plot that neatly unfurls despite a rather slow opening, Rebecca is tense and gripping throughout.

Rebecca is streaming now on Netflix

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