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Review: Flat 'Rebecca' remake stuck in the past

Armie Hammer and Lily James can't breathe new life into Netflix remake of Hitchcock classic

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's not that there's no need to remake "Rebecca," Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 Best Picture winner and a treasured piece of vintage Hollywood. It is, after all, 80 years old, and your average Netflix viewer likely hasn't dipped into the Laurence Olivier-Joan Fontaine thriller outside of the context of that film class they may have taken in college. 

But director Ben Wheatley's stiff take on the material, based on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, doesn't make a compelling argument for the update. It's a handsome but hollow production, and its performances fade quicker than the central mystery of the woman for whom the story is named. 

Armie Hammer and Lily James in "Rebecca."

This is a story of class and identity, loss and replacement, unfolding in late 1930s Europe. 

Armie Hammer is Maxim de Winter, a well-to-do aristocrat and widower, who despite his boundless wealth is for some reason always wearing the same mustard-yellow suit. Lily James (2015's "Cinderella") is several rungs down the social ladder from Winter but catches his eye in a fancy hotel, and in a whirlwind romance she quickly becomes his wife. But anytime she asks about his late ex-wife Rebecca, whose presence looms large over everything in his world, she is thwarted.

The young Mrs. de Winter — she's never known as anything more — faces stern opposition at de Winter's family house, a sprawling estate known as Manderley, from nasty head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who goes out of her way to make the new Mrs. de Winter as uncomfortable as possible. Meanwhile, de Winter slowly pieces together the story of Rebecca and the circumstances that led to her death, revelations that may have once been scandalous rendered quaint by today's standards.

It all unfolds in a matter-of-fact and often airless narrative, with Hammer and James suffocating under the droll pacing and rigid adherence to the source material. Which leads back to one central question: why?

Wheatley, whose hit-or-miss resume includes the creepy chiller "Kill List" and the wayward social satire "High Rise," doesn't bring a personal vision or a fresh take to his "Rebecca." So what we're left with is an inferior remake that fails to make a case for its own existence. Hitchcock is by no means rolling over in his grave, but he might be rolling his eyes.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama  

'Rebecca'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for some sexual content, partial nudity, thematic elements and smoking

Running time: 123 minutes

On Netflix