Warning: Spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Rebecca.
Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca is the saga of an inexperienced young woman who marries a wealthy widower and goes to live at his sprawling estate by the sea, but it is not a love story. Sex, murder, jealousy, power, gender, and greed are central themes throughout, thinly veiled by the lush, dreamy language of an unreliable narrator plagued by what must be one of the earliest documented cases of imposter syndrome.
Rebecca is, however, a romance, the young woman at its centre — the narrator, whose proper name is never given — a hopeless romantic in the worst way. Her reality is idealised, the fairytale life she’d enjoy as the wife of Maxim de Winter imagined, the untouchable charm of his late wife projected. She wears her naïveté not just on her sleeve but in her bobbed blonde hair and simple, unsophisticated fashion sense, a far cry from the stately, stylish Rebecca, whose shadow swallows the second Mrs. de Winter whole — and an understated performance that Lily James pulls off opposite Armie Hammer with quiet aplomb in the new movie adaptation of the classic, out on Netflix today.
This isn’t the first time Rebecca has been adapted for the screen (it’s also been reimagined for radio, theatre, television, and opera): Of its five adaptations, the most notable is the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Maxim and Mrs. de Winter, respectively. The 2020 take bears little resemblance to that interpretation, which the film’s hair and makeup designer, Ivana Primorac, says was a natural result of the story’s 21st-century update.
“The way [Rebecca director] Ben Wheatley wanted to tell the story was so different from the Hitchcock version of the film,” Primorac says. “We weren’t redoing those references — we were doing an adaptation of the book with these young, modern actors involved.”
“Young and modern” does well to describe the initial look of James’ character when she first meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, where she’s accompanying the wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper as a paid lady’s companion. “I tried to make her look very luminous and young at the beginning,” Primorac says. “She was all golden from being out in the South of France, and youthful and freckled.” When Mrs Van Hopper announces her intention to leave for New York on short notice and take her traveling partner along with her, Maxim de Winter proposes marriage to the young woman. Enthralled by his social status and murky past, she accepts.
The new de Winters honeymoon in Italy, and from there travel to Maxim’s ancestral home, Manderley, where the setting changes from sunshine and sex on the beach to damp, breezy Cornwall in the southwest coast of England. “When she gets to the austere Manderley, I spent most of my efforts on making her skin look pale and luminous and giving her the groomed eyebrow of the period,” Primorac says. “That was really it, because I think the simplicity of the whole thing lends itself to the emotional turmoil that she starts to go through.”
Manderley, while beautiful, is haunted — not by spirits or apparitions, but by the memory of Rebecca kept intentionally intact by the presence of the inscrutable, antagonistic Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca’s lady’s maid since her youth and stayed on at Manderley after her mysterious passing. “You wonder what she’s hiding in her relationship with Rebecca,” Primorac says. The contrasts between the first Mrs. de Winter and the second are emphasised throughout: the second, gentle, fair, and meek; the first, dark-haired and dramatic, with a cold gentility that endeared her to Danvers over the years.
As in the book, you almost anticipate a transformation at some point, a moment where the new Mrs de Winter will make an effort to rise to the occasion as the lady of the house to cut a more intimidating figure as Rebecca once did. “She’s a quite simple, beautiful young girl with no particular style,” Primorac says. “She sort of tries to become Mrs de Winter, changing her clothes and her hair colour. It doesn’t work to capture all the style that we hear Rebecca had, but you see an effort in her to become ‘his wife.’”
In the end, it hardly matters how Mrs de Winter stacks up against the woman who came before her: As everyone but she anticipated from the start, there is no neat conclusion, no happy ending for the newlyweds. Manderley goes up in flames, as does any hope of a “normal life” with the enigmatic older man she married on a whim. Happy endings are for love stories, after all — and Rebecca is more of a cautionary tale.