‘Rebecca’ review: A series of flat tires, on the road to Manderley

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, and all you got was this lousy Netflix remake. The pretty, empty, emotionally frictionless and touch-free new “Rebecca” adaptation, starring Lily James and Armie Hammer, may suit the pandemic dictates for social distancing. But the drama fails to spark. It premieres Oct. 16 in a few theaters nationwide, including the Music Box in Chicago, before landing, on a bed of exquisite throw pillows, in Netflix queues Oct. 21.

There it belongs in a sub-category we’ll call “Lily’s Big Adventures,” alongside the trending phenom “Emily in Paris” starring Lily Collins. Truly these times begs for escapism; whether the new, airily wrong-headed “Rebecca” captures even a fraction of the “Emily in Paris” eyeballs is unlikely, however different they may be in theory.

In practice? They’re fashion shows. I’m hardly immune to falling in love with clothes on screen. To this day I haven’t gotten over the sight of Robert Donat’s overcoat in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller “The 39 Steps.” Five years after Donat modeled that overcoat, Hitchcock’s first Hollywood project won the Best Picture Oscar: “Rebecca.” It had everything. Prestige, the David O. Selznick branding, a globally hot bestseller courtesy of Daphne du Maurier.

Few literary and screen successes on that order call it a day after one adaptation. (Orson Welles got there first; he reworked it for radio in 1938.) The brooding Gothic romantic intrigue and big, big, big, big, big secrets of “Rebecca” led to du Maurier’s own stage version, nearly a dozen different TV editions, spinoff novels, remakes in other languages.

It’s a geometric pip. The tortured triangle of Maxim de Winter; his late, legendary first wife, the unseen but perpetually present Rebecca; and the unnamed narrator and second Mrs. De Winter makes for one sturdy narrative, full of emotional masochism, dream-fulfillment, fancy dress balls, undermining frenemies and nightmarish mood swings (you know how men are). In Mrs. Danvers, the sinister, sociopathically devoted housekeeper of the Cornwall manor house Manderley, “Rebecca” found its true reason for being, a spellbinding rotter speaking in queer code to one audience, while communicating in the universal languages of jealousy, vengeance and manipulation to another.

This brings us to Kristin Scott Thomas, whose Danvers has an awful lot to overcome in terms of director Wheatley’s technique. Hammy close-ups and anvil-weight subtlety is never not on the menu at Manderley this time. But what an actress, even here! Scott Thomas stages her own one-woman festival of withering contempt, and one look at James’ middle-class pretender to the Manderley throne is worth a thousand words.

Beyond her way with a variety of first-rate hats, James is quite effective, or would be in different circumstances. Nobody seems to have gotten any notes from director Wheatley about approximating any sort of period style. (You need someone who knows and cares about getting everybody into the same movie, with the right physical details and comportment.) For better or worse, screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse bend over backward to put a 2020 audience of “Rebecca” newcomers at ease with the main characters’ alleged age difference. In the novel, shadowy widower Maxim’s twice the age of our narrator; the stars of the 1997 TV adaptation, Charles Dance and Emilia Fox, were 51 and 23, respectively. James and Hammer are both in their early 30s, which takes care of that.

Hammer works hard, but that’s how Hammer always works, even when he’s playing Repression Incarnate. He he has yet to discover the payoffs of simply being on camera, instead of behaving, petulantly, dismissively, warmly, violently, whatever the role requires. (Maxim requires them all, in unsteady rotation.) The vibe and make-believe artifice hovering over this “Rebecca” falls into a Young Adult groove early and never gets out of it. Nobody and nothing seems remotely real; the digital trickery complementing the English and French location work ventures perilously near live-action-Disney-remake territory. The ingrained class resentments are handled so broadly, the actors don’t have a chance. Except Scott Thomas.

“Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” Danvers murmurs with fire (forshadowing!) in her eyes, goading the second Mrs. de Winter. The line belongs to du Maurier; the bones of the story remain hers as well. Watching Wheatley’s version of “Rebecca,” it’s hard to care about where that question might be leading. The author’s obvious Bronte inspirations, “Jane Eyre” (Charlotte) and “Wuthering Heights” (Emily), remain for some of us more a matter of admiration than ardor. The Hitchcock version of “Rebecca,” same thing.

I went into the YA version of “Rebecca” withhout preconceived notions of what might make the material vital, today, right now. Maybe next remake.

One and a half stars (out of four)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content, partial nudity, thematic elements and smoking)

Opens: Oct. 16 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; Oct. 21 streaming premiere on Netflix.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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