They’re all comparing me with her! With Rebecca…
– Rebecca (1940)
Imposter syndrome is one of the most easily understood psychological experiences. We all wish for something greater than what we have. But when presented with our goal, we either feel vindicated, or a part of us desperately wonders if it was unearned. Surely it was just a bit of a lucky streak, and eventually, the universe will reset itself and remind us how ordinary we are!
Imposter syndrome is at the heart of Netflix’s latest feature, Rebecca. A remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name (although director Ben Wheatley will swear to anyone who’ll listen that it isn’t), it also doubles as an adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel. The story follows a young woman who is swept off her feet by an older, and much wealthier, tycoon. But she soon has to deal with the challenges brought upon by his mysterious past.
Lily James plays the young woman in question, bringing a mix of cheery optimism and timid anxiety to the iconic role. Her character (who is never addressed by her first or last name) finds herself working for the belligerent and haughty Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who hired her to essentially be her companion and caretaker. Yet, the working environment would be a HR nightmare today, as Hopper scolds and belittles our protagonist. Although, Hopper does get a few gems in, such as “when you trap a man between your legs, they don’t stick around for long.”
However, the young woman’s Cinderella-like misfortune is upended when she brushes up with the wealthy Max de Winter (Armie Hammer). Originally the object of Hopper’s eye, Max sets his sights quickly on the much younger, yet somehow more mature than her employer, protagonist. Their romance commences quickly and passionately, and escalates to the point that Max hastily proposes to her, offering to move her to his grand estate – Manderley. It seems like a fairy tale, except one problem – Max is noticeably haunted by the memory of his ex-wife, Rebecca, who drowned not long before he met the protagonist. As Max invites the 2nd Mrs. de Winter into his world, she finds herself being forced to compete with the memory of Rebecca, especially amongst Mrs. Danvers – Manderley’s housekeeper and Rebecca’s trusted friend.
The irony of the plot at the center of Rebecca is the movie itself has to deal with outsized expectations. The original film is thought of as a classic of old Hollywood, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture after it’s release in 1940 (the only film in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography to receive the honor). As the 2nd Mrs. de Winter has to battle the legacy of the dead, Netflix’s Rebecca can’t sidestep the comparisons to Hitchcock. This, of course, is significant fuel for the thrashing the new film has received from critics.
However, while Rebecca (1940) stood tall in its day, it perhaps doesn’t hold up as well in repeat viewings, especially when compared with Hitchcock’s other master works. For starters, the film is incredibly shallow, missing much of the depth of du Maurier’s novel. In Hitchcock’s original, the 2nd Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is depicted as a whiny and petulant child rather than the humorous, self-deprecating, and decently intelligent woman of the novel. Moreover, Hitchcock’s handling of the love story has it’s own set of problems – Laurence Oliver’s performance is way too cranky to make Max de Winter believable as an object of desire. Making matters worse, Hitchcock tips his hand too often in regards to the mystery of the plot; there’s only so many closeups of Max de Winter shrouded in unsettling shadows you can see before it becomes obvious what’s really going on.
In the remake, there’s a more concerted effort to invest the audience in the love story. The depiction of the romance between the two love birds is sweet, even if a little rushed. Lily gets across her character’s combination of self-doubt and hopeless romanticism, while Armie Hammer regal portrayal turns Max into a prize worth fighting over. As the film begins to dig deeper into Max’s psyche, Hammer leaves enough subtlety and doubt to make one wonder what his words mean and if there are double entedres at play.
But solid performances aside, Rebecca (2020) isn’t even about the romance. It’s about class; more specifically, it’s about how the poor form romantic attachments to the rich as an unconscious utilization of upward mobility. The 2nd Mrs. de Winter’s journey is defined by the pursuit of money. Money is the only reason we find her practically babysitting Mrs. Van Hopper. Her attraction to Max, and later to the Manderley estate, despite Armie Hammer’s good looks, can’t be disassociated from Max’s considerable wealth. The two bond over him giving her driving lessons in his expensive car, and dining her out with exquisite cuisine in fancy places, more so than any character-based connection the two could possibly have.
Then there’s the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (portrayed expertly by Kristin Scott Thomas). Danvers knew Rebecca since childhood, and developed romantic feelings for the unseen bombshell. Even as Rebecca dated boyfriends, and married Max, Mrs. Danvers believes it was only a temporary reprieve from the love she and Rebecca shares.
This is not to say that Mrs. Danvers and the 2nd Mrs. de Winter aren’t experiencing some amount of love, but their love is accelerated by the class and status associated with their objects of desire. This leads a profound effect on both characters, as Mrs. Danvers can’t let go of Rebecca’s memory, and the 2nd Mrs. de Winter is so devoted to Max that she’s willing to forgive any transgressions to be with him. Our protagonist and Mrs. Danvers clash because their both defensive of their significant others, refusing to relate on the grounds of their shares economic background, and aligning themselves to defend their wealthy socialites as their companionship with the rich gives them an invite into that world.
In the end, Rebecca (2020) pivots from Hitchcock’s interpretation of an edge of your seat thriller, weaving closer to a character study. Your mileage will vary on if this was the right move, and much of the remake doesn’t work (Max’s sleep walking subplot could have been written out entirely). The film is lesser than the sum of its parts, succeeding in small spurts, but never truly coming together as a whole. But as different interpretations go, it’s an intriguing depiction of a novel that is just as much about the psychology of the characters underneath as it is the scandalous mystery on the surface. In the end, through wreckless behavior, everyone at play in this sick love story is a little dead.