By Leah Greenblatt
October 15, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Kerry Brown / Netflix

Oh, to dream of Manderley again (again). In a world that sees fit to reboot Batman approximately every four years, the fact that Netflix's new Rebecca, due Oct. 21, is only the second major big-screen adaptation — not counting several attempts for television and overseas — of Daphne du Maurier's classic 1938 novel feels like a remarkable act of restraint. Or maybe just wisdom, considering that the first belongs to Alfred Hitchcock, whose iconic 1940 film (the lone Best Picture Oscar winner of his career, no less) still stands as the definitive take on Du Maurier's gothic romance.

With or without that hallowed history, it's hard not to feel the lack of something in director Ben Wheatley's lush, ponderous update — the most obvious thing, perhaps, being Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as the wealthy, grief-stricken widower Maxim de Winter and the humble young ladies' maid who brings him back to life. (Though famously, she does not earn the privilege of a first name; that honor, along with the title, belongs strictly to his cherished first wife — the extravagantly mourned, indubitably dead Rebecca.)

Here British actress Lily James, her blond hair girlishly bobbed, brings her own strain of Fontaine's fierce, contained sweetness; Armie Hammer, it can at least be said, wears a suit vest very well. The couple meet in Monte Carlo, where James is accompanying a shrill socialite (The Handmaid's Tale's Ann Dowd, having a ball) in the same grand hotel where Hammer's De Winter is spending a lonely holiday. A run-in in the dining room leads to a longer conversation, and soon enough, a full-blown fairy tale: long drives along dreamy French coastlines, stolen kisses, tender notes scrawled on hotel stationary.

A whirlwind proposal follows, and the new Mrs. De Winter is quickly swept off to Manderley — "one of the finest homes in England," Dowd helpfully supplies — suddenly mistress of a sprawling estate whose rooms she can't even begin to count. Though it also comes with a malevolent housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) whose primary job seems to be preserving the memory of the adored Mrs. who came before.

The whole house, in fact, seems to be holding its breath for Rebecca's imminent return, even as the circumstances of her death remain a mystery James' increasingly rattled bride can't crack. While she tries, Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List) lets his camera gorge on gorgeous period details and eerie atmosphere; there's a vicarious European vacation in nearly every shot. But the screenplay, by Jane Golden and Joe Shrapnel, often reads like melodrama xeroxed and once removed — its characters less living humans than archetypes to be sexed up, simplified, and sent off to their inevitable fates.

It doesn't help that the duo also reduce Maxim's character to a sort of brooding, well-mannered mute, his charm discarded at the gates of Manderley. Both Hammer and Sam Riley (as the mustachioed love rival Jack Favell) seem hazily miscast, though the movie's more serious crime may lay in offering up the promise of the great Thomas and then giving her so little to do in the end, beyond a few outrageous scenes. What's left then feels a little like the "superficial froth" of du Maurier's Monte Carlo: a whirl of pretty faces and dazzling scenery, and beneath that, not much to hold on to. B-

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