the times | Friday October 16 2020 1GT 7
says Bruce is still the Boss p
is lifted by a poetry podcast p
dishes the dirt on Trump p
Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter and Lily James as the new Mrs de Winter in Ben Wheatley’s film
talent can’t save
the big film
Last night I dreamt this film was good
irst, the good news.
Kristin Scott Thomas
is a goddess. The 60-
powerhouse who in
recent years has made
her natural home in
French cinema, acing
roles in sophisticated Parisian
melodramas such as In Her Hands
and In the House, is on fire here.
She does that a lot, of course. She
parachutes into English-language
dramas (Fleabag or Tomb Raider),
coolly flexes those thespian muscles,
and reminds us what a phenomenal
talent she has become.
In this latest adaptation of Daphne
du Maurier’s gothic classic, Scott
Thomas is the housekeeper from
hell, Mrs Danvers. We meet her
roughly a third of the way through,
standing impassively at the grand
entrance to the Cornish mansion
Manderley, ostensibly there to
welcome the master of the house,
Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer),
and his new bride, the gauche
unnamed narrator known only
as Mrs de Winter (Lily James).
Danvers glares at Mrs de Winter, a
quick micro-scan up and down, and
then blankly hisses out the words,
“Welcome to Manderley.” And in that
one simple one-sided exchange Scott
Thomas evokes more passion (barely
concealed, naturally) and hints at
more complexity (a flicker of pain
across her face) than anything in the
film so far. And that’s the bad news.
Rebecca is mostly rubbish.
It’s a film, alas, of terrible choices,
misfired scenes, thematic padding and
needless revisions. The dramatic
dynamics of Du Maurier’s novel are
simple enough, and Hitchcock, in
1940, followed them (bar one
murderous omission) to the letter.
In the south of France, a recently
widowed, middle-aged millionaire
(played for Hitchcock by a brittle and
imperious Laurence Olivier) falls for
a much younger, 21-year-old lady’s
maid, then brings her back to his
Cornish estate where she is compared,
unfavourably, with Rebecca, the first
Mrs de Winter. Eventually, the hint of
a crime is discovered and a court case
reveals the truth about that marriage.
A big fire ensues.
Casting, in this version, is the
initial stumbling block and indicates
something of the wider, saccharine,
“chocolate box-ification” of the
whole endeavour. James and
Hammer, crucially, are not even
three years apart in age.
The story’s creepy paternal dynamic
(Du Maurier’s Maxim announces that
“a husband is not so very different
from a father”) is replaced by gooey,
sepia-tinged, Mills & Boon romance
and lots of pointless snogging.
Also, Hammer is at his best when
pillorying his slightly patrician mien
(think Sorry to Bother You or The
Social Network). When he’s asked to
play straight, as he is here, he can be
James fares better than she did in
her non-role from Yesterday, but Mrs
de Winter is a monumentally passive
character — she watches, she whines,
she whimpers, she faints — and the
Mamma Mia! star can only deliver so
many aghast expressions before her
range begins to appear limited.
The screenwriters, including the
partnership of Joe Shrapnel and
Anna Waterhouse (they also did
The Aftermath and Seberg and are
fast becoming the go-to anti-brand
for middlebrow sludge), have tried
hopelessly to counter Mrs de Winter’s
passivity by giving her a Time’s Up-era
revamp. Thus she now knows about
engines, has a bizarre “almost car
chase” and, near the climax, does
some titter-inducing investigative
work that has no impact whatsoever
on the story. You go, girl!
The biggest surprise is that the film
is directed by Ben Wheatley, the gifted
and visionary film-maker behind Kill
List, Sightseers and High-Rise. Here he
is utterly defanged, and working
Yes, the film looks lush, and the
lighting from Wheatley’s regular
cinematographer, Laurie Rose, is
often startling. Yet for every arresting
image (a skeleton floating slowly
from the depths) there’s a cheesy
computer-generated pan over a
or a vapid exposition-filled two-shot
(a pair of characters banging through
the plot) or, worst of all, a mansion-
makeover montage that you might
have found in the laziest episode of
It didn’t have to be like this.
Movies such as Greta Gerwig’s Little
Women or Armando Iannucci’s The
Personal History of David Copperfield
have proved that classic literary
adaptations can have stinging
What we have instead is what the
French director François Truffaut
used to call “le cinéma de papa” —
a passionless, vacuous, low-level
exercise in cringeworthy mediocrity.
The novel and the Hitchcock version
tellingly end in a bleak and purifying
all-consuming blaze. This one, and it
won’t be spoiling anything to reveal it,
ends with an emetic dedication to the
power of romantic love. Yep. That’s
where we are.
In cinemas on October 16 and on
Netflix from October 21
The best Richard Attenborough? For
most people it’s Gandhi. Then Cry
Freedom a close second, followed by
A Bridge Too Far. Yet, with hindsight,
there was never a cinematic storm
more perfect than the one combining
Attenborough’s directorial style, the
writing of William Nicholson
Kevin Maher introduces
a mesmerisingly sad
true relationship drama
(adapting his stage play) and Anthony
Hopkins at the peak of his powers.
The story of the romance between
the writer CS “Jack” Lewis (Hopkins)
and the American poet Joy Davidman
Gresham (Debra Winger) is a platform
for some heavy-hitting ideas about
human suffering, the comforts of
religion and the value, or not, of art.
Yet every scene is underscored
by a subterranean torrent of feeling.
One that only truly erupts in the
final scene. Mesmerisingly sad.
On Amazon, Apple and Google.
What did you think of Shadowlands?
Join Kevin Maher for a live chat on
Monday, October 19, from noon to
1.30pm. To submit your thoughts and
questions in advance, put them in the
comment section below the feature
Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands at thetimes.co.uk/arts