Rebecca (2020) Review: More Bland Than Bittersweet

I haven’t read Rebecca, but knew enough about it before watching this to have an idea of the general feel (though I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and characters).

First of all, I was immediately struck with how vivid and HD the visuals were, with a warm temperature and sunny highlights. The cinematography was pretty cool throughout, but this gave it a feel of rom-com or coming-of-age films, with a pink and yellow vibe, rather than the gothic mystery genre that the book fits into.

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I think this contributes to the main difficulty I had with it: the tone. While the first half hour seemed like it could be a light-hearted romance film, it was weighed down by Maxim’s closed-off nature and the protagonist’s chaotic discomfort as she seems to be swept along without much agency to control her situation.

This does set up a good character arc for her, as she takes more control towards the end, but even then she’s still in her husband’s (and Rebecca’s) shadow in many ways. I also noticed after about 20 minutes that we didn’t know our main character’s name – they were clever to maintain having no necessity for her to be called by a first name, and it wasn’t noticeable within the narrative. Like in the book, this perhaps makes her more anonymous, leaving more ambiguity for the ending and disconnecting us from her a bit. 

Lily James as Mrs deWinter – Rebecca (2020)

Despite this, I still felt fairly connected with her and enjoyed seeing Lily James take on the range of motions she goes through! However, I found in general that characters weren’t very deeply rendered. I didn’t have much of a sense for Maxim’s personality other than his situation, and Mrs deWinter’s wasn’t very clear. So as the film had such a focus on plot, it sacrificed character plausibility.

I liked how tension was sometimes balanced by having lighter moments of relief (which were almost startling on occasion, e.g. when Mrs Danvers starts helping her – that sudden change did surprise me for a bit!) But an issue I had was how there would be a few scenes of that golden sunlit aesthetic (for happier scenes), before suddenly some cold, blue-tinted scenes to show the gothic and oppressive aspects. While it’s fine to contrast the moods, it’s done so suddenly and back-and-forth that it ends up confusing. 

Tension was often handled badly too, as it was frequently cut short so there was no payoff. For example, they built up a lot of suspense when Maxim was sleepwalking to the double doors – and stopped short of opening them, which made sense as it left tension lingering. But the next time we see those doors, Mrs deWinter is throwing them open without warning, and we miss the opportunity of feeling that tension build up further before the reveal. It’s also unclear as to what Maxim was actually doing each time he went into Rebecca’s room. Why did Danny close the doors with him still inside? A bit odd.

Armie Hammer & Lily James as Maxim & Mrs deWinter – Rebecca (2020)

The main issue was that the bright & cheerful cinematography was evocative of a rom-com but not distanced enough from the underlying mystery to reach that status, while the gloomy atmosphere wasn’t gothic enough to give that wholesome creepy feeling (I mean it doesn’t have to be Tim Burton level, but perhaps a bit more creepy). So it fell somewhere in the middle, and I wasn’t just uncomfortable when the film intended to make us feel unsettled, but by the fact it couldn’t quite decide what feel it was going for. 

Any creepiness came mostly from Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the role of the strict, burdened and conniving housekeeper with such restrained ferocity and exacted composure that she made for a compelling (though deliciously detestable) antagonist through the whole film.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers – Rebecca (2020)

The presence of Rebecca is felt, seen in items around the house, and we see how she is stifling Mrs deWinter’s life. However, the only signs of how all-consuming this is are when she has a small outburst of anger, and when she almost seems to consider jumping out the window. But she quite quickly seems to overcome this arc that had been building from the start, and becomes a wholly new person who has forgotten her feelings of inadequacy as soon as she realised there was no need for jealousy. Maxim does point this out, that she’s no longer all bubbly and innocent, but the transition still seems too sudden to be believable.

Another difficult concept to grasp was the manifestation of Rebecca. It was effective that they had items of hers everywhere, so some eeriness was created by the imagination as a result. But they also showed the back of a woman as she walked away – was this an apparition of the protagonist’s own mind, or a ghost of some sort? While this could have been enticingly ambiguous, it was more just confusing.

The music was frequently off-putting, especially in the darker scenes – while it attempted to add to the atmosphere, it cut through scenes with heavy accents and unpleasant dissonance.

Armie Hammer & Lily James as Mr & Mrs deWinter – Rebecca (2020)

Why did Maxim never say to Mrs deWinter that she shouldn’t feel inferior to Rebecca? He seems to disregard his wife for most of the film until she takes over at the end and we’re supposed to back him and see his case as the morally superior. I think the pivotal point is after Maxim holds the gun to his chest. Mrs deWinter suddenly takes over and he becomes submissive, a swap too unrealistic to seem believable. There are distinctly different undertones once they are working together in this later section, as she does all the talking while he sits there.

Sure, it’s cool to have subverted their roles, but she’s suddenly so inexplicably different, and upholding his case despite his neglectful and borderline abusive behaviour. The transitions between these states is just too fast, and the pacing feels off for most of the film.

Lily James as Mrs deWinter – Rebecca (2020)

There is an argument against her supporting him, as her eyes flick directly towards the camera at the end. The director himself said this could indicate she will leave him, or has some sinister plan. Perhaps she is another ‘Rebecca’? But while it’s all well and good to speculate, none of this is actually foreshadowed in the film from what I can see, and that interpretation just doesn’t correlate with the character we see on-screen. So this final shot seems to be a weak attempt to add more ambiguity, but instead it seems forced and unnecessary.

The director said he hoped it would leave a bittersweet taste. I mean it’s definitely got me thinking, but I’d say the taste leftover is more just… bland.

Armie Hammer & Lily James as Mr & Mrs deWinter – Rebecca (2020)

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