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'Rebecca' review: Netflix's version is flat, superficial

Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, Lily James

Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, Lily James as Mrs. de Winter in Netflix's "Rebecca." Credit: Netflix/Kerry Brown

MOVIE "Rebecca"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This is another cinematic adaptation of the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel "Rebecca," most famously turned into the 1940 Best Picture winner directed by Alfred Hitchcock and given screen treatments multiple times over the decades.

Lily James assumes the role Joan Fontaine played in Hitchcock's iconic version. She's Mrs. de Winter (her first name is never revealed), newly married to the British aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and brought home to his lavish Manderley estate in the English countryside.

There, she must contend with the imposing legacy of Rebecca, her husband's late first wife, who remains first in the heart of the head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), as well as other staff members, and whose spirit appears to permeate throughout this expansive home.

The movie is directed by Ben Wheatley (best known for black comedy B pictures such as "Free Fire," with Brie Larson and Hammer). It's written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and streaming on Netflix.

MY SAY It's odd to consider a version of "Rebecca" that is almost completely bereft of engaging psychological drama. Not a great deal happens in the world of the living in du Maurier's story; the shape and texture of the narrative lies in the ways in which Rebecca's essence is felt throughout the house as the second Mrs. de Winter tries to adjust to her new life.

And yet here we are confronted with an almost painstakingly superficial version of this story, in which Rebecca barely registers as anything more than a plot device. Here, Manderley seems less of a haunted domain in which the grief practically seeps through the walls than it does a glamorous set imitating something more.

Monochromatic color schemes, darkened rooms and dramatic angles do not fundamentally add up to anything more than self-conscious style, especially when paired with acting that comes nowhere close to conjuring up the required depths.

Rather than leaning into the ways in which Mrs. de Winter might seem overwhelmed and tormented by the tensions facing her, including the fact that her new husband emotionally abandons her to enter something like a fugue state, James mostly seems nonplused, hitting the same notes of vaguely emotional bewilderment.

The audience remains at a distance throughout the movie because the star never communicates the extent to which the protagonist is being put through a harrowing experience.

Meanwhile, Hammer is effectively a nonpresence and Thomas, truly a world-class actor, practically floats around with a restrained malevolence that quickly grows tiresome. Her Mrs. Danvers is not very menacing and not much of an antagonist.

For a "Rebecca" adaptation to work correctly, the title character must be felt throughout every scene.

Anyone who has experienced a loss of this magnitude, and then tried to inhabit the same physical space once occupied by their departed loved one, will recognize the ways in which their presence seems to linger where they once stood.

To follow in the footsteps of a beloved, departed figure — to make the world they once occupied your own — can be scary and harrowing and certainly fodder for rich drama. But Wheatley is not able to conjure up the unseen here, and so the movie plays as a languid melodrama when it should be something more elemental.

BOTTOM LINE This "Rebecca" adaptation is flat and slow, without much of the complicated texture characterizing the Daphne du Maurier ghost story.

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