A ghost story without ghosts and a tale of a haunted house without a haunting, is how I would describe Rebecca, which was yet another version of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Gothic romance novel that has enthralled audiences for more than seventy years. One might think that a remake of a legendary movie, which starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, and which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, would not be worthy of a review, but this version is as good as, if not better, than the original.
Made in 1997 for PBS Masterpiece Theater, this film shows no effects of a low-budget made for television movie as it seems the producers spared no expense in recreating both 1920’s England and Monte Carlo. The story would seem to be rather simple at first, but then it gets much deeper and twisted and what appears to be a love story between an older gentleman and a young lady becomes a dark, and haunting tragedy of true love…or so it seems.
Maxim De Winter, played by Charles Dance, is a newly widowed and ultra wealthy British gentleman who is taking a vacation in Monte Carlo where he meets the nineteen year old personal assistant of another rich traveler, who is played by Faye Dunaway. The young girl would be Emilia Fox, making her first appearance in a major film project. Though Dunaway’s character is trying to seduce De Winter, it is actually her assistant that he will fall in love with. A relationship quickly forms between the two, but not without its hazards as he quickly notes he is more than twice her age. They put that aside and form a loving relationship, to which he asks her to marry him and take her home to his famous mansion, called Manderley. Though overwhelmed and starstruck, she agrees and the two travel back to England.
The lady who would become Mrs. De Winter (we never find out her real name) still does not know much about her new husband, only that he recently lost his wife when she died in a nighttime boating accident. Her name is Rebecca and is so struck with grief that he does not permit anyone to speak her name in his presence, or reference anything she had done.
She is introduced to the head maid, and personal assistant of the late Rebecca, known simply as Mrs. Danvers, who is played hauntingly brilliant by Diana Rigg in an Emmy Award-winning role. The new Mrs. De Winter quickly discovers Danvers’ undying love for Rebecca, a woman she knew her whole life, and someone who she devoted countless hours to, in a borderline obsession of affection. She really does not think much about it, or her husband, as the loss was not a long time ago and they must be still grieving, but it only gets worse as comparisons keep being drawn up between her and Rebecca, and she threatens to leave Maxim because she feels she will never be able to be as good as her.
As the movie goes on, they have a costume party and Danvers suggests Mrs. De Winter wear a certain dress, and when she reveals herself to the party guests, they all stand in shock, and Maxim has a conniption. She later finds out that Rebecca wore that dress at the last party she attended before she died, and that Danvers did it intentionally to cause trouble. Mrs. De Winter is upset as well, but cannot understand why Maxim is still grieving as badly as he is.
SPOILER ALERT: As the story continues, it grows even more complex as the perfect marriage between Maxim and Rebecca is revealed to be anything but. The chain of events that lead up to the fatal boating accident include an affair between Rebecca and her cousin, played by Jonathon Cake, and that her boating accident was not an accident at all, but that Maxim killed her because he couldn’t stand her and her wicked ways anymore—she never loved him, or anyone else for that matter. Danvers reveals that it was all just a game, and she was the only one Rebecca ever really loved. This has to be one of the best twists ever written, because for the entire movie we think it is grief Maxim is stricken with, but it is actually guilt and insecurity over the murder. This isn’t all—another boating accident in the bay leads to an accidental discovery, one of the boat that Rebecca sank on. She had been killed on land, then placed in the boat which was intentionally sunk to hide it.
After an inquest with the coroner, which Ian McDiarmid makes an appearance as, a threat of blackmail, and an investigation, no proof can be tied to Maxim as the murderer. The conversations that follow are complex and heated, and Danvers is still grieving when she attempts to burn down Manderley, to erase all the memories of Rebecca, as if she still haunts the place with a ghostly presence. SPOILER ALERT OVER.
Overall, this is a fantastic and clever movie, especially since I never put much stock in TV remakes, but the British and Masterpiece are always an exception to that rule. Every single character in this story is played to perfection. Emilia Fox starts out as young and innocent, but transforms into a more mature and aware adult by the film’s conclusion. Charles Dance does not seem out of place at all as the millionaire gentleman, and Diana Rigg gives the performance of a lifetime.
Everything from the casting, scenery, sets, music, mood, and tone are perfect, though this three-hour and ten minute movie could have probably had at least a half hour cut from it. I never read the novel, but my mom who has read it many times says this was spot-on, and even more accurate than the Hitchcock version, so I suppose the extended length of time was warranted. As I said earlier, this is a ghost story without any ghosts—it has the feel of a haunted house horror movie, but neatly and carefully strays from that to remain an all-time classic. My final grade? 8 out of 10. Highly recommended—enjoy!