Synopsis: A newlywed woman becomes obsessed with her husband’s late wife.
As long as a woman is going to go mad, she may as well fall apart at a palatial manor: plenty of servants giving the side eye, the closed off wing of the house to explore, sumptuous rooms to take tea in while contemplating ghosts.
In Rebecca, Lily James is Mrs. de Winter, wife to the wealthy and mysterious Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). The first Mrs. de Winter died in a boating accident. Or did she?
The book Rebecca, a Gothic bestseller by Daphne Maurier was published in 1938 and went on to be adapted into an Oscar-winning movie (Best Picture, 1941) by Alfred Hitchcock. This time around director Ben Wheatley takes a crack at the story (streaming on Netflix) with plenty of 1930’s glamor and two attractive leads. (The book is narrated by Mrs. de Winter and we never learn her first name–so let’s just use the actors’ names forthwith.)
We start off in sunny Monte Carlo where Lily is working as a personal assistant/companion to a harridan who takes every chance to laugh at her employee’s modest circumstances. Fortunately the film’s costumers ignore the fact that she is supposed to be poor and she wears all sorts of cute outfits with adorable sunhats. Lily first meets Armie, who looks dashing in a canary yellow suit, at a hotel restaurant. He charms all and sundry with his excellent manners and on and off English accent.
In the Before Times (pre-pandemic) people traveled all over the place without masks. Lily and Armie got to film all over the South of France, at the Exotic Garden in Monte Carlo and in nearby Nice. Their characters take long strolls, eat at fancy restaurants, swim in the Mediterranean and make out on the beach. Lily tells the witch she works for that she is playing tennis at all hours. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry and he brings her back to England and his family’s estate, Manderley. It’s really splendid and fantastic like the places one might tour on vacation (if we weren’t all sheltering at home).
Armie is all enthusiastic about Lily being his new wife and the lady of the manor. Although the staff is deferential, Lily is insecure and this is immediately taken advantage of by the head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mrs. Danvers was very devoted to the late Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Here are some of the insults she lobs at too-nice Lily: I thought you were a lady’s maid…Rebecca was an excellent sailor…not afraid of anything… she could wear anything… she was the love of (Maxim’s) life. We get it Mrs. D, Rebecca was effing perfect.
Meanwhile, Armie won’t discuss his late wife. “You know you can tell me anything,” fishes Lily. But Armie won’t bite. “All marriages have their secrets,” he explains. (Like murder? Or being in love with a ghost?) One night Lily discovers that her new husband sleepwalks. Lily follows him as he spookily treads a long hallway where he is suddenly intercepted by Mrs D. Creepy! The story is Gothic with a capital G, so when Lily does hear whisperings from staff that Mrs. de Winter drowned a year ago, we know to suspect the husband. But Lily is apparently too thick to consider that Armie may have been involved in Rebecca’s disappearance, even after being warned of his supposedly famous temper.
Instead of trying to unearth her husband’s secrets she is driven to learn more about her predecessor, concerned about whether she measures up to Miss Thang. She explores Rebecca’s old rooms which Mrs. D has kept spiffed up. Elegant, perfect Rebecca apparently had a fondness for her monogram, as everything from her slippers to her brush is affixed with a swirly R. Lily seats herself at Rebecca’s dressing table and stares into the mirror. No doubt she is thinking of Armie’s estate manager’s reminisce that Rebecca was the “most beautiful creature” he had ever seen. She snaps out of her trance and begins inspecting Rebecca’s brush, feverishly digging out the late woman’s dark strands like a half-starved squirrel digging up the garden. I have watched enough ghost stories to know that Lily should not be greedily handling Rebecca’s peignoirs and dainty ceramic figurines. Careful it doesn’t break Lily! Too late. Now she has to worry about the rage of Ghost Rebecca and the High Priestess of Rebecca Worship, Mrs. D.
After Lily spends a good deal of her time fretting and making a fool of herself over Rebecca, she endeavors to take a break over her obsessing and plans a grand Masquerade Ball– just like Rebecca used to do. (She also fires and unfires Mrs. D. Send her packing, you fool!) On the night of the party, with Manderley in all its finery, a storm whips up while the guests laugh and dance. No spoilers, but if you have seen Phantom of the Opera, you know that sometimes unexpected things occur at masquerades.
I was sorry for Lily that she started driving herself mad with jealousy about five minutes after hearing about Rebecca. She could’ve been enjoying walks through the gardens with the resident doggoes, a well-curated library and passionate nights with Armie.
But when there is a crisis, Lily has a chance to use her wits to determine once and for all what happened to Rebecca and where her husband’s affections lie. And she should probably toss out all of Rebecca’s monogrammed goodies while she’s at it.
P.S. At release time, Rebecca’s stars were back in 2020, stuck like the rest of us, with their own pandemic problems. Lily James and married actor Dominic West were photographed all over each other, all over Rome. Conveniently, his wife and four kids were quarantined back in England. When he returned to England and the pix were in the tabloids, he & his wife posed for a photo shoot after handing out a note that said their marriage was “strong.” Sure it is.
Meanwhile, Armie was trying to get his kids back to the States. He and his wife separated while quarantining in the Cayman Islands. Armie returned to California expecting, he said, that his wife and kids would soon follow. Two months later she is saying that she couldn’t get a flite back and the kids are settled into island life anyway. I’m guessing he won’t be like, K, I’ll see the kids after the pandemic.
Watching Rebecca, and knowing about the stars’ real life troubles, I couldn’t help but be glad that my pandemic has been much less eventful. And when I need some excitement, there’s always the movies.