Blogathons, Films based on Daphne du Maurier's works, Period Dramas, Uncategorized

Je Reviens: Rebecca (1997)


It is rare that an adaptation of a novel gets things right. Often one feels that they shouldn’t have bothered to buy the rights to the book at all if they were just going to change everything. Thankfully, that is not what ITV does in the 1997 adaptation of du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca. This is the third adaptation of the novel after Hitchcock’s 1940 version, the most famous amongst the adaptations, and the 1979 BBC version.


This adaptation is perfectly cast, with Emilia Fox as Mrs de Winter, Charles Dance as Maxim de Winter and Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers. Interesting, Emilia’s mother, Joan David, had played the same part in the 1979 version opposite Jeremy Brett. What Hitchcock’s adaptation understood was that Rebecca is not and never was, a romance novel. du Maurier remarked in annoyance that her novel should never be considered such a thing. And thankfully the 1997 version recognises and respects du Maurier’s assessment of her own work, but does not try to mimic the shadowed gothic noir of Hitchcock’s.


What it does is recognise that it firstly has brilliant source material to work from, which has elements of suspense, thriller, murder mystery and a feminine bildungsroman. It also recognises that it has a superb main cast, which needs to be highlighted and focused on. While Joan Fontaine will always be my favourite Mrs de Winter, Emilia Fox is fantastic in the role. At first I thought she came across as too worldly for the gauche Mrs de Winter, but then I realised that she was showing how Mrs de Winter is a woman-child. She may want to project an air of worldliness, and she may say things that seem mature, but Emilia shows that these things are always said and done in the hope of hiding her inexperience and her anxiety. She also shows how devoted to Maxim Mrs de Winter is, but how this devotion is filled with caution and a lack of self assurance. Her facial expressions are wounded, confused, childlike and cautiously happy. With her slightly flipped bob and almost dowdy clothes, she is the embodiment of the character. In the end she shows her maturation in a way that is very subtle and natural, the way she walks, the manner in which she finally interacts with her husband in comfortable familiarity.

Laurence Olivier is many people’s favourite Maxim, but I must say that after watching this adaptation, I have realised that Olivier’s performance is rather stiff. Charles Dance is far more believable in the role. You may want to throw rotten tomatoes at me over this, and that is fine, but for me Dance manages to show how haunted Maxim is. The overwhelming bitterness, the hopelessness he feels, the intense fallibility of a man who has been spiritually amputated due to the necessity of social appearances, the pressures of maintaining an ancient family name at the cost of ones own desires. Dance and Fox have stunning chemistry. The programme shows far more of the physical relationship between Maxim and his young wife than the novel, but this is done in a way that is not gratuitous. And their interactions are not flesh crawling because of their disparate ages. Dance physically embodies the role so well with his tall, but slightly unsure stature, the way he shows how his temper is bridled by his social position. He manages to convey how Maxim desires his wife, but also regards her as a silly young child in some ways.


Judith Anderson is a joy to watch as Mrs Danvers, but Diana Rigg manages to convey the terrible sadness and loneliness of Mrs Danvers in such a powerful way. She shows that Mrs Danvers is not a straightforward villain. Like Maxim, she is haunted by the spectre of Rebecca, but she invites it, nurses it, obsesses over it. Rigg shows that this in the way she talks, the expression on her face as she regards her mistress’ inferior, and that unforgettable voice is used to convey so much seething emotion. Rigg makes herself look larger, more intimidating, she looms over Fox, like a consuming shadow. The scene in which she weeps over Rebecca’s death is particularly memorable, hers are the tears of a husk, a broken being. She is indeed just a shadow, a receptacle to memories she has obsessed over.

The adaptation stays very close to the book, and is filmed in gorgeous locations, which include Cornwall, Devon and Hampshire, as well as internal shots on the set built for the programme. The first shot of Manderley, after the bushes and bushes of wild rhododendrons, is absolutely arresting. A large, weather worn structure built many lifetimes ago, so isolated from the world around it. While it does diverge in a few parts, such as what becomes of Mrs Danvers and the expansion of the de Winters’ honeymoon, this is indeed du Maurier’s book, lovingly adapted in a way that I think would have made her proud. Because this is a two part miniseries and not a film, far more exploration of character development and motivation is allowed. And because of this, you begin to understand that this is not a happy story, there will be no happy ending. Even when they are in the sun, having survived the desolation of the great family home, they are still haunted. The sea is not like Manderley’s, they have no identity there, they cannot speak of things come before. They have no children. This is a self imposed exile, as Mrs de Winter says, and they must find some comfort in it.

This is my first contribution for The Calls of Cornwall: The Daphne du Maurier Blogathon, which I am hosting. Please go here to read everyone’s fabulous contributions in honour of this fabulous author.


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9 thoughts on “Je Reviens: Rebecca (1997)”

  1. This sounds wonderful! From your description, it sounds like a more nuanced version of the characters, and one thing I love about the book is that it really is open to interpretation–which version of the story we believe depends on which character we sympathize with most.

    Liked by 1 person

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