The gothic genre, like any other genre of the sort, is difficult to concretely define. It’s considered a subgenre of horror and combines elements of death and gloom as well as emotions such as fear and suspense. Rebecca, a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, fully embodies the genre in regards to the plot. The 2020 film adaptation by the same name from director Ben Wheatley has a nearly identical story. The film follows an unnamed woman who marries a wealthy, recently widowed Englishman, Maxim de Winter, shortly after meeting him. The majority of the events take place at his mansion, Manderley, old and empty apart from the staff. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, was especially fond of Maxim’s first wife, the late Rebecca, whom everyone had a glowing impression of. Maxim is tight-lipped about her and the narrative follows his new bride as she uncovers who the previous Mrs. de Winter was and what happened to her, simultaneously grappling with feelings of inferiority.
So, Rebecca has all the proper elements of a gothic story on paper; the large desolate house, the themes dealing with death, the foreboding mystery. Yet, Rebecca is not a gothic film. It tries to balance being a thriller, a romance, and a mystery, but it’s hardly stylized at all. Without an ever-present tension and consistent atmosphere to tie the film together, its tone feels incredibly odd and it’s easy to become disengaged. The runtime clocks in at about two hours, yet it feels longer.
It’s clear that the film wants to frame the story as some sort of romantic triumph and to do so would require the leads to have some sort of palpable chemistry. Lily James as the narrator gives the best performance one could expect given the material, but Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter does not breathe the life into the character that is crucial for the romantic aspect of the film to be successful. Mrs. de Winter is blindly devoted to her husband and it is framed as a positive trait rather than something to be uneasy about, something which leads the film to be thrown out of sync. Perhaps if Maxim wasn’t written so coldly, the romantic take on the story could have kept viewers invested in the success of the couple, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. All the characters could have been written with more emotional depth. Mrs. Danvers especially feels underutilized and developing her would help make things feel fleshed out rather than peppering her in for cruel measure.
While the poor handle of tension and atmosphere negatively impact the first two acts of the film, the third act is where it truly begins to fall apart. The climax of the story and the resolution of Mrs. de Winter’s internal conflict is unsatisfying due to the poor buildup, but then the falling actions are a poor last resort at finding some excitement in the film. If the narrative was more of an ever-increasing slow-burn of stress, a third act where the stakes were raised would feel apt. If the audience was invested in the success of the couple, the third act would feel as exciting as it was meant to be. Unfortunately, the poor foundation the film was built on collapses the entire structure at the end.
Rebecca, without the gothic tone, falls flat. The romantic elements alone simply cannot make the viewer care about the story. The most noteworthy part of the film is its intriguing plot, but since the life has been sucked out of it, everything else is simply unremarkable. It looks fine, the performances are fine, the sets and costuming are fine, the cinematography is fine. It’s watchable, but hardly enjoyable.
Maybe the book handled the romance better as the reader could glimpse into the mind of Mrs. de Winter and understand why she loved Maxim. Maybe it was eerier, and the reader could have a greater sense of her fear and self-loathing. Either way, these are feelings that should define the film but instead come across in bits and pieces. The story is interesting enough where the audience will want to know how it ends, but it doesn’t entrap like a good thriller. If you like mysteries, it could be worth a watch, but if you like a thoughtful film adaptation of a mystery, not so much.