NEW YORK — British author Daphne du Maurier’s bestselling 1938 gothic novel “Rebecca” has been dramatized multiple times over the years, most memorably in the 1940 movie starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.
Alfred Hitchcock’s U.S. directorial debut, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Now it’s Netflix’s turn, with a sumptuously staged drama that becomes available Oct. 21.
Fans of the novel and, especially, the film will be pleased this new version, directed by Ben Wheatley, is faithful to the source material. Production values are lavish, the acting is first-rate and the enchanting settings on the French Riviera and the Cornish coast of England offer the perfect escape for these travel-deprived times.
Lily James, playing a familiar ingenue role (“Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella”), stars as the unnamed protagonist (the first-person narrator of the book). She works as the companion to a demanding elderly woman, Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), and travels with her to a grand hotel in sun-kissed 1930s Monte Carlo where guests and staff alike are atwitter over the arrival of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a wealthy, and decidedly eligible, widower.
De Winter is mourning the death of his wife — from whom the novel takes its title — in the wake of her mysterious drowning. In the hotel dining room, he is repelled by Mrs. Van Hopper’s mistreatment of her young employee.
Over the course of two weeks, while her boss is ill in bed, the comely lass is courted by de Winter and, unexpectedly, love blossoms. When Mrs. Van Hopper announces their departure for New York, her escort panics. Maxim impulsively proposes marriage, more out of pity and a desire to help than any real affection. She accepts and becomes the second Mrs. de Winter.
After a whirlwind honeymoon in Europe, the newlyweds head home to Cornwall and Maxim’s imposing estate, Manderley. There, the formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), rules the roost, doing her utmost to preserve the memory and routine of her beloved former mistress (whose image is never revealed).
“Rebecca” morphs from whirlwind romance to psychological thriller as the newly minted Mrs. de Winter struggles to cope with the treachery of Mrs. Danvers, Maxim’s erratic behavior and, especially, the haunting presence of her predecessor.
Maxim’s sister, Beatrice (Keeley Hawes), doesn’t help matters when she describes her late sister-in-law. “Rebecca was just one of those bloody annoying people irresistible to everybody, men, women and children,” she explains. “We mere mortals couldn’t hope to compete.”
Things go from bad to worse when Rebecca’s decomposed body washes ashore and Maxim is accused of murder. His young wife, despite her doubts, stands by his side as a gaggle of creepy acquaintances close in, including Rebecca’s cousin (and erstwhile lover), Jack Favell (Sam Riley).
Strict purists will object to the modern sensibilities that intrude on this version of “Rebecca.” Maxim and his new spouse are closer in age and class distinctions are blurred, for instance, making their courtship seem less unusual. There’s a momentary, purely gratuitous, scene of voyeurism as well.
Mrs. Danvers’ obsession with Rebecca, moreover, is given lesbian undertones. And the original ending has been needlessly extended, leaving far less to the imagination as to the fate of the main characters.
But these are mere quibbles when weighed against the pleasure of revisiting a classic story and, especially, hearing that immortal opening line first uttered on film by Fontaine: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
The film contains mature themes and a distant glimpse of nongraphic sexual activity with partial nudity. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.