Ben Wheatley’s new Netflix adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca has been pretty poorly received. With a score of just 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems that not many people particularly liked the film.
Anyhow, I hadn’t read any of these reviews when I decided to watch the film. Lockdown 1.0 had turned me into a bit of a film snob, and I spent nearly four months refusing to watch any films with a lower than 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (although there were a couple of exceptions). But, finding myself back in the gloomy lockdown spirit once more, the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca began calling to me.
Rebecca has long been a favourite book of mine and, like many people, I am highly susceptible to advertisements on the side of buses. I didn’t bother to check the Rotten Tomatoes rating, as I was a little bit afraid of what I might find.
So, I watched Rebecca, and I have to say it was quite awful. Not only were the two leads miscast (more on that shortly), but the costume department was clearly not feeling the 1930s and had also given up on fashion fidelity (in addition to emotional fidelity). Oh, and of course, the film did a very good job of making us feel sympathetic towards a man who had killed his wife. That’s the big one.
Now, I don’t think this was at all what director Ben Wheatley intended, but unfortunately the film presents its male lead so uncritically that this is what happened. Rebecca as a novel is ambiguous yet probing in its presentation of femicide; this film turned it into collateral damage that ultimately allows our male and female leads to have their romance unfettered. How nice. It’s not quite so bad as Netflix smash-hit 365 Days, but it’s a film that merrily glamourises an unhealthy relationship without a second thought.
For those of you who are not au fait with the plot of Rebecca, here’s a quick summary (skip these next two paragraphs if you want to avoid spoilers). The story centres around a young woman (whose name we never learn) who, while working as a ‘lady’s companion’ in Monte Carlo, meets English widower Maxim De Winter. Despite the differences between them in age, wealth and social class, the young woman begins to fall in love with De Winter. To her surprise, he proposes an offer of marriage and then takes her back to his stately home, called Manderley, with him. There, she finds haunting reminders of his dead wife Rebecca at every turn. Rebecca, it seems, had drowned in a boating accident, and everyone around our young heroine cannot stop hinting at how beautiful and accomplished Rebecca was.
Anyhow, to cut a long story short, a wreck of a small boat is brought to shore and Rebecca’s decomposed body is found on the boat. It becomes clear that the boat has been deliberately scuttled, and the inquest surmises that her death could only have been the result of murder or suicide. De Winter confesses to his young bride that he killed Rebecca himself and then sunk her body on her boat. He tells the heroine that he hated Rebecca and that she had been carrying out a series of affairs. Instead of repulsing our heroine, this news empowers her, as she realises that De Winter never loved Rebecca. The pair then set out to create a defence that ultimately encourages the coroner to record a verdict of suicide.
In the novel, as in the film, De Winter literally gets away with murder. But the issue with this new film is that it essentially cheerleads for a man who has murdered his wife, offering none of the ambiguity of the original novel. The two leads in Wheatley’s film fail to highlight the significant power dynamic that exists between De Winter and the young heroine. He is supposed to be much older than her, and she is meant to be scarcely out of her teenage years. The book portrays him as cold and aloof, and while the heroine dotes upon him, the affection that he shows to her is often distracted and even fatherly in nature – something that convinces her that he must still be hankering after Rebecca.
And of course, there is the huge class difference between the pair, emphasised in the novel by the heroine’s panic that the servants at Manderley are sneering at her low status. In the book it is clear that our heroine is very much left in the dark – she feels disconnected from the man she loves while being totally in thrall to him. Yet this film hardly hints at an age difference between the leads, and fails to emphasise class distinctions. For some reason, it includes numerous sex scenes which totally betray Du Maurier’s original characterisation of the pair’s relationship. Maybe sex sells, but it’s a pretty cheap punt in this case.
The big problem with Rebecca is that it seems frustrating and confounding that we are still making films like this in 2020. In the scene after De Winter has confessed Rebecca’s murder to his young bride, romantic music plays as she affirms her love for him, convincing viewers to take De Winter at his word as much as our young heroine does. The final line of the film, delivered by the heroine as part of an internal monologue, sees her tell us ‘I know that I have made the right decision. To save the one thing worth walking through flames for. Love.’ As she passionately kisses De Winter, this line seems to simply be part of the titillation of a souped-up ending, rather than a chilling reminder that our heroine has blindly committed herself to a life with a man who is capable of killing a woman.
There are some clumsy attempts throughout the film which emphasise that maybe, just maybe, De Winter isn’t quite the suave but tortured gentleman he seems. But these are delivered in the form of statements from the terrifying housekeeper (and Rebecca’s former devoted maid) Mrs Danvers who bitterly comments on Rebecca’s vivacity and autonomy and says ‘No wonder a man had to kill her’.
But this very true idea that men do kill women because they lose control of them is completely undermined by the fact that Mrs Danvers is not at all a sympathetic character. It would be easier to doubt De Winter’s words if he was the irascible, cold character of Du Maurier’s book – instead of some hunky and passionate Hollywood heartthrob.
So I’m pretty aggrieved by the film that’s been made here. It’s okay to make a bad film in 2020 – not everything can be great. But I don’t really think it’s okay for us to keep producing materials which unquestioningly elevate men who are controlling of and/or violent towards women. A man who has killed a woman and then claims he did it because she was horrible is probably rather horrible himself. Our young heroine doesn’t realise this, and we really shouldn’t assume that most viewers will either.
We still uphold laws in the UK which allow men who have killed cheating wives to see their time in jail reduced. De Winter claims that when he killed Rebecca, she was taunting him about her infidelity. Though Du Maurier’s novel was written in the 1930s, the ‘loss of control’ defence which allows a killer to claim that their victim’s behaviour tipped them over the edge still applies today and would almost certainly see De Winter acquitted of a murder charge and sentenced instead for manslaughter. We can be smug about how far we have come as a society that cares about women’s rights since the 1930s, but unfortunately, some of our fundamental attitudes towards women have changed very little.
We live in a real world which often shows far too much sympathy towards violent men. It calls them ‘very nice guys’, and insists that their cricketing careers are far more important than their domestic brutality. Art and culture ought to be at the forefront of challenging these misplaced sympathies; a film like Rebecca only upholds them. I don’t think Ben Wheatley will be reading this, but I do urge those of you who have a creative platform in this world to use it wisely – it has more of a social influence than you realise.