One of the most influential works in English literature, Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel ‘Rebecca,’ has been adapted for the screen several times, including famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, which won an Oscar for Best Picture. Ben Wheatley’s 2020 Netflix rendition keeps true to Maurier’s vision while exploring the tale with certain hints of 21st-century modernity. ‘Rebecca’ is not a romantic film, nor is it a horror film — although it has qualities of both. Instead, it is a psychological thriller that delves deep into the pathological envy and fear of a rival who appears to be better in every single way. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Rebecca Plot Synopsis
The film begins with the famous opening line from the novel. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” says Lily James’ unnamed British female protagonist. She serves as a paid companion to an older American socialite traveling across the world. In Monte Carlo, the 20-something woman meets handsome widower Maxim “Max” de Winter (Armie Hammer). A whirlwind romance ensues. When it seems that they are going to part ways for good as the socialite has decided to move to New York, Max proposes to her – “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
Following a quick ceremony and a honeymoon, he takes her to his ancestral home in Cornwall, a sprawling estate known as Manderley. The household is run by Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who originally came to Manderley with Max’s late wife, Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter’s Cinderella-like story quickly starts disintegrating as she realizes the enormous shadow that the dead woman casts on every aspect of life in Manderley. Max’s complete refusal to talk about Rebecca leads her to believe that he is already regretting his marriage to a woman as plain and simple as her.
Her fears are fueled by Mrs. Danvers, who never misses an opportunity to let the protagonist know that she will never measure up to Rebecca. Because of her unparalleled beauty, intelligence, and apparent kindness, Rebecca seems to have been idolized by almost all the people that knew her. The protagonist feels that she is fighting a losing battle, not only over asserting her authority over the manor but also for her husband’s affection.
As the film progresses, the protagonist’s fear and trepidation transform into a disturbing obsession about the manor’s previous lady, mirroring the similar but more intimate emotions of Mrs. Danvers for Rebecca. She convinces Max to let her hold the annual costume ball, which Rebecca organized in the past. She thinks she can win over the staff, friends, family, and even Max, by demonstrating that she is fulfilling her duties as a spouse of a nobleman.
However, on the day of the ball, Mrs. Danvers tricks her through her maid to wear a dress that Rebecca wore before her death. When she makes her appearance at the ball, there is pin-drop silence, and Max is looking at her with horror and disgust. She quickly realizes that she somehow made yet another mistake and leaves. Later, Mrs. Danvers traps her between herself and an open window and almost manages to convince her to jump.
Secrets Never Stay Hidden
When Rebecca died, Max identified a decomposing dead woman as her, and that was that. However, after a violent storm, her boat resurfaces with her remains on board. Max is apprehended by the police. He finally opens up about his relationship with Rebecca to the protagonist. He reveals that although Rebecca had all the appearances of an ideal wife, she was a cruel, vindictive, and hateful woman who made his life miserable. She had multiple affairs, including one with her cousin Jack Favell (Sam Riley), and flaunted them in front of him.
Rebecca knew that he could never divorce her because of his family’s position in society. She also told him that she was pregnant with another man’s child and threatened to raise the child as if it were Max’s, knowing that he couldn’t do anything about it. Ultimately, all the taunting and humiliation culminated into that moment of profound shame, and Max shot her. He then put the body on her boat and caused it to sink. This is a fascinating scene. Instead of focusing on the fact that her husband has just confessed to murdering his pregnant first wife, the protagonist is relieved that she was wrong all along.
All his actions regarding Rebecca up until that point were driven not by love but hatred. There is suddenly a remarkable change in her. From a painfully shy and naive young woman, she becomes confident and self-assured. When Favell returns to Manderley to threaten Max with a note that apparently proves that Rebecca wasn’t planning to kill herself, she quickly deduces that he wants money for his silence. But as it later turns out, it is a ploy orchestrated by Favell and Mrs. Danvers to trap Max. In that, they are successful, and Max is taken into police custody.
The protagonist discovers that Rebecca was seeing a doctor in London. She presumes that it was for her pregnancy. She travels to London and manages to get into the doctor’s office right before the police arrive there. She finds Rebecca’s file, and after reading its content, she lets the police officer find her. It turns out that Rebecca had cancer and had only a few months to live. She proclaims that Rebecca committed suicide to avoid a lingering death. When the doctor asks the manner of her death, she looks straight at the police officer and says that it was drowning.
Dreams Turn to Ash
There is some truth in her assertion. After all, as Mrs. Danvers once remarked, the biggest fear Rebecca had was of dying a slow and painful death. Rebecca knew that if she pushed Max enough, he would kill her. Max is freed, but as he and the protagonist are returning home, they spot a distant brightness. Max realizes that that Manderley is on fire. When they finally get there, the entire house is blazing. The protagonist finds Mrs. Danvers standing on the cliff.
In her final sinister act against the couple, Mrs. Danvers takes away their home. If her beloved mistress can’t have Manderley, then no one can. Before leaping to her death, she ominously says that the protagonist will never find happiness, to which the second Mrs. de Winter resolutely answers, “Yes, I will.” The film ends with the couple in a second-class hotel in Cairo. According to the protagonist, they will be traveling until they find a home.
If the protagonist’s obsession with Rebecca stems from her jealousy and insecurity, that of Mars. Danvers comes from her love for her dead mistress and sexual desire. Whether it was ever reciprocated or not, we will never know, but it is certainly implied in the book that Rebecca had been with both men and women. Mrs. Danvers has known her since they both were quite young and is inarguably the most unapologetic defender of her actions. The very notion that someone would come and take the place that was previously occupied by Rebecca is simply unfathomable to her. So, when Max returns to Manderley with his new bride, she focuses all her vileness and cruelty towards the poor, young woman.
After it is discovered that Max murdered Rebecca, she loses the last bits of control over her sanity. Now, he too is subjected to her fury. His eventual release from the police custody convinces her that she has to get justice for Rebecca on her own, and the only thing to do, she decides, is to burn down Manderley. Her choice of a watery grave is also a demonstration of her faithfulness to her mistress. She hopes to reunite with her in the realm beyond death.
The film ends with the couple in a second-class hotel in Cairo. According to the protagonist, they will be traveling until they find a real home. What transpired at Manderley has clearly left imprints on both of them. The protagonist still has nightmares in which she sees both Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, and Max has lost his ancestral home. But they still have each other, and that matters. “And I know that I have made the right decision… to save the one thing worth walking through flames for. Love.” In its own way, this declaration is radically unapologetic as well. Both of them have lost much, and there is a considerable possibility (like in the book) that they will spend the rest of their lives as vagabonds, never really finding that “real home”. Despite all that, they fully celebrate this current moment of togetherness, hoping that tomorrow will be just as bright and full of possibilities.
Read More: Is Rebecca a True Story?