Imagine daring to make another version of Rebecca. Hitchcock’s 1940 film is the version that is bound to overshadow any subsequent attempt to put Daphne Du Maurier’s story on any screen large or small. Laurence Olivier plays Max de Winter whose dead wife Rebecca broods over Manderley, the sinister stately home he takes his unnamed bride – played by Joan Fontaine in her first screen role – back to. And in one of the most famous bits of acting in the history of the cinema, Australia’s Dame Judith Anderson plays the grim and menacing Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper from hell.
Hitchcock told Francois Truffault – the man who made Shoot The Pianist and Jules et Jim – that he hated to be confined to a well-known novel like Rebecca because it meant that he had to stick to the familiar story rather than improvise his own variations and that this was why he had never filmed Crime and Punishment, a book close to his heart.
Well, Rebecca is the paradigm of what a film version of this kind of haunting romantic melodrama can achieve. Daphne du Maurier is a trashmeister who can hold the attention of any literary person who wants to be spellbound by a yarn full of mystery and dark-shadowed romance. She is not Charlotte Bronte but the author of Jane Eyre (who is not to be confused with her ferocious blood-curdling sister Emily who wrote that high, craggy horror of a masterpiece Wuthering Heights) is the ultimate prototype for Du Maurier’s fiction and there’s no coincidence in the fact that Joan Fontaine went from Rebecca to play the title role in Robert Stevenson’s film of Jane Eyre with Orson Welles as the most charismatic and ogre-like of all Mr Rochester’s. Legend has it that Welles actually took over the direction of the film in the stunning sequence where the meek Jane meets her overlord. Olivier’s encounter with the Brontes is as Heathcliff, in William Wyler’s film of Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon as Cathy and Dame Flora Robson as Nelly Dean.
All of which is by way of preamble to admitting that we lasted only a matter of minutes with the new version of Rebecca which is in non-Victorian cinemas and is streaming on Netflix.
Lily James is a fluttering juvenile heroine compared to the stately Fontaine, and Armie Hammer, who played the much adored older man in Call Me By Your Name opposite the millennial heartthrob Timothée Chalamet, plays Max De Winter.
It is the blandest possible characterisation of the troubled hero of Rebecca. If you want to see Hammer’s work at his best have a look at him in Final Portrait in which Geoffrey Rush is wholly convincing as that eccentric master sculptor, Giacometti, and Armie Hammer is expert and sure-footed as his sitter.
Instead of the low-rent Rebecca we found ourselves watching a version of a play which drew the attention of Melbourne’s vice squad when it was staged here in 1969.
The Boys In The Band was done here in a production by John Tasker (the one time favourite director of Patrick White) with John Krummel as one of the leads. It doesn’t stand up badly even though it is in some ways a period piece. There is a drawn out game at the heart of the play in which the various characters are compelled to ring up someone they in fact love.
The Boys In The Band was compelling but it has the advantage of its ensemble cast with no weak link and the kind of dynamised script from the playwright Mart Crowley that is necessary for a play that captured the world’s attention.
Aficionados of recent television will remember Andrew Rannells, the actor who played the bisexual boyfriend in Lena Dunham’s Girls and who is impressive in a cast which recapitulates the manners and mores of what is a half-lost but still recognisable gay world.
Some people see Mrs Danvers in Rebecca as a proto-lesbian. Judith Anderson, however, was famous for playing the most famous child murderess in dramatic history, Euripides’ Medea, as well as Big Momma in the old Liz Taylor / Paul Newman film of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where a guy’s love for his buddy was perhaps more powerfully insinuated by being less overt.
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