The scenery is spectacular in “Rebecca,” and that’s not even counting stars Lily James and Armie Hammer. Yet this faithful, pretty-but-uninspired adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel doesn’t breathe fresh life into the classic, much less eclipse the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Joan Fontaine version that garnered Alfred Hitchcock’s lone best-picture Oscar.
Those years produced a lot of florid, macabre romances with literary underpinnings etched in black-and-white memories, among them “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” The remakes draw inevitable comparisons, and in the case of “Rebecca” — which premieres on Netflix amid its year-end prestige push — inevitable speculation about whether de Winter is coming to make its claim for awards consideration.
The short answer is probably not, though the appealing star combination will likely make this a popular escape for subscribers, and Kristin Scott Thomas (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) shines in the role of Danvers, the housekeeper carrying a very, very big torch for the late lady of the manor referenced by the title.
That Rebecca would be the first wife of Hammer’s Maxim de Winter, the wealthy widower who resides in the gargantuan familial estate known as Manderley. On a trip to Monte Carlo he meets a sheltered young woman (James, in what amounts to a hybrid of her “Downton Abbey” and “Cinderella” days), a lady’s companion who is understandably swept off her feet.
Faced with an abrupt return home, she is surprised when Maxim proposes, whisking her off to his sprawling home. But there the new Mrs. de Winter meets not just the plotting Danvers, but the expectations associated with her privileged status and the lingering ghost of her husband’s first wife, who he seems uncomfortably reluctant to discuss.
Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Rebecca” does capitalize on the heat between its leads — matching Olivier is a tall order, but Hammer is dreamy, mysterious and smolders just fine — but Scott Thomas really steals the show, offering a subtle, serpent-like approach to Danvers, while telling the manor’s new occupant that Rebecca was “Irresistible to everybody” and can’t be replaced.
Eventually, the movie descends into the thorny question of what really happened to Maxim’s first missus, her relationship to the oily Jack Favell (Sam Riley), and the new bride’s determination to stand by her man, no matter the consequences.
It’s certainly a handsome undertaking with plenty of old-fashioned allure, tapping into a genre that — other than the rarefied world of independent film — didn’t have much strength at the box office even before coronavirus wounded theaters. Recent stories about the stars’ personal lives will also no doubt help fuel interest in the movie.
Yet while the new “Rebecca” is a lot of things, irresistible, alas, isn’t one of them.
“Rebecca” premieres Oct. 21 on Netflix.