This story has taken on its own mythology, a gothic tale is set in a beautiful old house country house – Manderley – overlooking the sea, amidst the mysterious Cornish landscape.
The book by Daphne Du Maurier was originally made into a film in 1940 directed by Alfred Hitchcock, with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the title roles. The story later appeared as a TV miniseries in 1979 with a masterly performance from Anna Massey as Mrs. Danvers. These are some pretty big shoes to fill, yet Director Ben Wheatley is apparently unfazed, saying that he hadn’t really thought about the Hitchcock version while he was filming.
Perhaps he should have. There was as much sense of haunted mystery in this movie as there is in your average pizza restaurant at 3pm on a wet Tuesday afternoon. If Rebecca haunts this film, it is with ennui.
So to the plot. There are three main characters: Maxim de Winter, a widower and owner of the fabulous and much photoshopped – sorry I mean photographed – Manderley in Cornwall, England. Secondly, his new young wife, a former ‘lady’s companion’ whom he meets and marries while on vacation in Nice. We never learn the name of this young lady who is referred to simply as ‘you’ or Mrs. de Winter. Last but not least there is Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper at Manderley who was devoted to Maxim’s first wife Rebecca who died in a sailing accident and whose somewhat malignant spirit still seems to fill the house, and the minds of all who live there.
Manderley is not a real place. Du Maurier based the house of her novel on a real house near Fowey called Menabilly – but that is a smaller house than the one she imagined for the book. And so the Director Den Wheatley said in interview that they combined several houses (8 in fact) to produce the ‘one’ that appears in the film.
Serious mistake in my view. The whole production is atmosphere lite, and the lack of a central location could contribute to that. Presumably many scenes were photoshopped in later leaving the actors wandering around in a vacuum and pretending. Director Wheatley thought this mix and match of houses contributed to the ‘dreamscape’ of the second Mrs. de Winter’s experience. I don’t share his optimism. Du Maurier didn’t write a ‘dreamscape’ – at least not in the woolly sense that he meant. She wrote a gothic mystery. It seemed to me much more likely that the Director’s game of house hotch-potch was done to save money.
The casting of Kristin Scott Thomas (of Four Weddings and English Patient fame) as Mrs Danvers the housekeeper should have been inspired. Who can do haughty and withering as well as she? Yet it is beyond even her powers to resurrect this miserable endeavour. Lily James – usually good – isn’t in this. Her recitation by voiceover of the opening line
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”
which also just happens to be among the most famous opening lines in the history of English literature, is uninspired to say the least, rather sounding as though it needed to get done before coffee break.
As for Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) in the title role of Maxim de Winter, yes we understand his character has had a difficult time, but does that involve wandering about the place like an emotional zombie, delivering expressionless lines like an automaton? Apparently it does.
There was a moral conundrum with the end of the 1940 movie which meant that Hitchcock’s film had to be altered from Du Maurier’s original written ending. That original plot has now been reinstated in part but although it works in the book, in this new film the ending seems unsubtle to say the least, and unlikely. But perhaps we are more accustomed to moral … er… ambiguity now than a mid 20th century audience and in that sense the story has dated.
I don’t want to spoil it for anyone in case they are planning to watch but if you’ll take my advice, watch the original film or the TV version. Or better still, read the book.