Mrs DeWinter No More
Chloe Pumares writes about the feminist themes of the 2020 remake of Rebecca.
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca has been subject to mixed reviews; some talk about the miscasting of Armie Hammer as Maxim DeWinter, others critique it in comparison to the classic Hitchcock take, one critique that continues to appear is in reference to Lily James’s portrayal of the titular Mrs DeWinter.
In the original novel by Daphne du Maurier, the unnamed young woman who narrates the story and becomes the second Mrs DeWinter is fairly meek and timid; constantly comparing herself to the wonder that was Rebecca DeWinter, former mistress of Manderley. This characterisation is clear in Hitchcock’s adaptation of the novel as we watch his narrator tiptoe around in the shadows of her new home. Yet James’s portrayal brings a fresh new take on this protagonist.
She was afforded the same balance and complexity that many male characters are shown to have, and this is what we need to focus on.
Despite being critiqued as headstrong and too investigative, her portrayal is exactly what the film needs to help it appeal to 21st century viewers. Further remarks have been made that this decision has taken away from the subtle feminist themes of the original text and movie, and thankfully it has. While in the 1940’s when the novel was written there may have been rules surrounding what could be included in publications, and authors were wary about outrightly offending the readership, in 2020 we can be more explicit: explicit in sexual themes, moral ambiguity and feminist narratives.
This more confident portrayal of the second Mrs DeWinter adds to the plot. it enables Wheatley to send James’s character to places such as the doctor’s office, where she is on a mission to prove her husband’s innocence. Not only does this independence appeal to modern day women but it also helps to further du Maurier’s ambiguity surrounding Maxim DeWinter and Rebecca’s death.
In recent years there has been a significant rise in female-led movies, from YA-based novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent to the announcement that Black Widow finally gets a solo debut. Now it’s time more than ever to push the portrayal of female characters. For too long in novels and movies there have been set roles for women: the temptress, the virgin or the spinster. We are finally at a stage where filmmakers can develop female characters to reflect women in real life. However, when writing female characters, we must be careful to not make them unrealistic in an attempt to appeal to the modern audience; they must be well-rounded, not flawless. Characters such as Elizabeth Bennet best embody this balance; the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice brought the narrator to the screen in a way that captured her strengths as well as her flaws. She was afforded the same balance and complexity that many male characters are shown to have, and this is what we need to focus on.
In 2020 we can be more explicit: explicit in sexual themes, moral ambiguity and feminist narratives.
While Wheatley’s adaptation may have missed the mark slightly, it should not be because of James’s portrayal. If we are to believe the feminist critical analysis that states that du Maurier wants us to disagree with Maxim and see how men can dominate women, then she would likely be happy with James’ portrayal. Lily James was able to bring to life a version of Mrs DeWinter that Daphne du Maurier may well have loved for her confidence and the movies explicit feminist themes.