Going to Manderley again was always likely to be a challenge. Any director and screenwriter taking on Daphne du Maurier’s great Gothic novel were bound to be haunted by Hichcock’s classic 1940 version.
I don’t think remakes of classic works should always be avoided – it’s interesting to see a great work reinterpreted for another generation, and also a mini-series can include a lot which had to be missed out of a film. Plus there’s the interest of seeing another angle, someone else’s take. However, for me the 1997 ITV version of Rebecca directed by Jim O’Brien and scripted by Arthur Hopcraft doesn’t quite work. I love the first hour or so, but feel as if after that it starts to go wrong and the romance ebbs away.
Emilia Fox, in her first major role, seems just right as the second Mrs de Winter – shy and quiet but ready to stand up for herself at key moments. She’s different from Joan Fontaine but has the same kind of spirit. However, the age gap between Fox and Charles Dance as Maxim is massive – he was 50 to her 22 – and I think that is a problem at times in this production. He does get the mercurial nature of this character, charming at one moment and turning on his wife with violent sarcasm the next – but must say I found it much harder to warm to him than I do to Olivier as a tortured handsome hero.
Spoilers beneath cut
Also his version of Maxim often seems to be nastier – snobbish and sneering, whereas with Olivier there seemed to be more genuine love for his wife underneath it all. Looking at the bullying demeanour of this Maxim, I found myself sympathising with Rebecca’s defiance - but then, Daphne du Maurier said she was always sympathetic to Rebecca, so maybe this brings out something that is there in the book.
This version is set in the 1920s, slightly back in time from the 1940 film. From the start, this production sets out to make the most of the big difference between 1990s TV and 1940s Hollywood - the use of colour. Since this version can’t compete with Hitchcock’s moody black and white and looming shadows, instead its colours are as vivid as possible . The title sequence, with the blue sea lashing the rocks, and the early scenes in the south of France have a sort of dream intensity which seems just right for the heroine meeting Maxim and falling in love. (This mini-series is something of a Jewel in the Crown reunion, as Jim O’Brien directed episodes of that series, which starred both Charles Dance and Geraldine James, who plays Maxim’s sister in this version of Rebecca – and one of the most striking things about Jewel in the Crown was its beautiful use of colour.)
However, I was quite startled that there was no opening line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, and no haunting opening voice-over – so you don’t get the feeling of the whole story being recalled by an older and sadder Mrs de Winter which is there both in the book and in the Hitchcock movie. In this version, the famous line comes almost at the end instead.
It’s a while since I last read the novel, though it is a favourite of mine – but, from memory, I think these opening scenes, and the mini-series as a whole, may well be more “faithful” to the novel than the Hitchcock version. Instead of dramatically meeting at the edge of the sea as Fontaine and Olivier do, this Maxim and his future wife are brought together by the interfering Mrs Van Hopper – played by Faye Dunaway in a surprising piece of casting. Dunaway is a delight to watch in the role, but as she is only a few years older than Dance and still so beautiful, it’s hard to feel that there’s anything ridiculous about her making a play for him.
The couple’s initial relationship has more time to develop and I did enjoy the opening scenes in France. Once they get back to Manderley, though, things start to go wrong, as it seems as if everything is spelt out too much and there isn’t enough uncertainty and menace.
I do like Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers most of the time, but there are moments where she seems to go a bit over the top – and Jonathan Cake seems downright hammy at times as Jack Favell. There are also flashbacks where we see bits of Rebecca’s face and hear her voice – ok, you never see her altogether, but it’s enough to damage the sense of mystery.
Maybe the real problem with this version, though, is that when you dramatise the whole story, with Maxim revealed as a murderer who elaborately covered up his crime, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him. I found myself hoping his wife would tell the police! In the 1940 film the Hays office insisted on changing the ending so that Maxim is innocent – which takes away the climax of the story but maybe improves the romance, because it means there isn’t the same violence there in his character. (Similarly, I think the Olivier version of Wuthering Heights is far more romantic than later versions which are truer to the book and make Heathcliff nastier.)
A new big-screen version of Rebecca is said to be in production starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Rylance – so it will be interesting to see if that version can make the killer more sympathetic.