Mysteries are revealed in two new films
Ben Wheatley, dir.
Jane Goldman, Ben Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, script based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel
Starring: Lily James (the second Mrs. de Winter), Armie Hammer (Maxim de Winter), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs. Danvers), Keeley Hawes (Beatrice), Ann Dodd (Mrs. Van Hopper)
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Has any reader of Daphne du Maurier’s acclaimed novel “Rebecca” ever forgotten its haunting opening line? Or have many viewers lost their admiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning version of the book, starring Laurence Olivier as the aristocratic Maxim de Winter, Judith Anderson as the baleful Mrs. Danvers and Joan Fontaine as his second wife and narrator of the Hollywood classic. The key to the ongoing success of Rebecca is its almost mythical narrative: an innocent young woman being swept off her feet by a handsome and rich stranger who marries her and takes her home to the ancient castle Manderley. There, she finds that she’s competing with a ghost—Rebecca—Maxim de Winter’s gorgeous and imperious first wife, who died mysteriously a year before. Rebecca is the perfect gothic romance, which seduces readers and viewers with fear, love, romance, murder, mystery and revenge. Now, Netflix is presenting a new version of the legendary novel and film directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Lily James as the second Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as the mysterious Max and Kristin Scott Thomas almost too perfectly cast as Mrs. Danvers.
Creating a new version of a classic is easy to do—the bones are already there—but to better something legendary is always going to be a tough chore. While it’s hard to imagine being more imaginative and engaging than Hitchcock, Ben Wheatley seized the opportunity to at least attempt the task. His films—High Rise, Free Fire, Sightseers—have exploded genres, usually combining outrageous comedy with a fresh take on the sci-fi or action films. Like Hitchcock, he enjoys having control of editing, changing films in post-production. But none of that is on hand in Rebecca. Apart from a typically dark dream sequence and a brilliant reimaging of a costume ball, this is not a Ben Wheatley film. It feels as if the director went along for the ride, content with showing his newly found ability to be adaptable to the requirements of mainstream production.
Of the three leads, Armie Hammer seems the most flummoxed with his role as Max de Winter. Though he’s undeniably handsome, his best performances are in films—Call Me by your Name, Sorry to Bother You, The Birth of a Nation–where he is challenged by the part and really has to act. In films like The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he didn’t seem to know how to turn a part into something comedic. With Rebecca, he should supply menace and romance, but all we see is a man looking vaguely distracted, almost drifting through scenes.
Luckily, there are two other leads. Kristin Scott Thomas is a nearly perfect Mrs. Danvers: chilly, disdainfully polite with a huge streak of menace that she can reach with merely a flicker of her eyebrows. And then there’s Lily James. If there’s a raison d’etre for this new Rebecca, it’s in giving her the chance to be the lead in a highly produced melodrama, where the success of the film rides with her. To say the least, she’s up for the task, taking us from a naïve girl of no means to a woman willing to fight anyone for the man she loves. In most of her films up to now, she’s relied on her charm, easy handling of dialogue and good looks. Here, she shows range in a performance that will certainly help her career.
Rebecca has production values—elaborate interiors, magnificent costumes, extraordinary landscapes beautifully shot—but what it’s lacking is heart. At the core of the du Maurier novel is emotion and that’s lacking in this film. Though Rebecca is still worth viewing for its great story, beautiful look and a couple of fine performances, it doesn’t reach the heights of Hitchcock’s classic. But it still takes us on a journey that’s lovely to follow.
The Viewing Booth
(Israel/US, 2019 )
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, director, script, co-editor, co-producer
A documentary feature with Maia Levy and Alexandrowicz, featured at the Planet in Focus festival in Toronto and the upcoming DOC NYC
One of the smartest documentaries I’ve seen in years, The Viewing Booth is a visual and intellectual experiment that slowly but inevitably asks an important question: do we really see the same thing?
The set-up for the film couldn’t be simpler, making it piquant that so much can be derived from Alexandrowicz’s doc. A young woman, Maia Levy, enters a room in an American learning institution, where the Israeli director is sitting next to a massive computer. Ms. Levy is instructed to go to the next room, which turns out to be her viewing booth. Keeping the door ajar, she is given a context for the experiment in which she’s engaging. Alexandrowicz wants her unguarded opinions on short verité footage taken in Hebron, a Palestinian city occupied by the Israelis. Levy is invited to look at various shorts, some of which were shot by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) while others were made by B’Tselem, a human rights organization in Israel.
Alexandrowicz, who keeps up a line of questioning while each observes these small docs, is clearly intrigued by Levy’s understanding of Israel and Palestine. She has spent time there with relatives and can understand Hebrew. Levy sees footage of rocks being thrown by a young mob and assumes that they are by Palestinians. When told that she is seeing angry Israelis, she adjusts her evaluation. But Levy isn’t doctrinaire. One can see that she is quite emotional and caring and not completely political. And, as she interprets short footage of a youngster being picked up and taken somewhat angrily away by a parent who is part of the military, there is deep confusion in Levy’s voice. What is she to make of the film and the questions being asked by Alexandrowicz?
In the second part of the film, Ms. Levy is invited back to revisit the footage she’d looked at earlier. Much of the focus is on a short “doc” in which a Palestinian family is awakened in the middle of the night by the IDF. The parents try to maintain their dignity while the military invades their house and looks through their possessions. The children are clearly terrified. Each side, the Israelis and the Palestinians, attempts to be polite while this is all taking place. After the IDF leaves, the children begin to cry. They and their parents have had their lives turned upside down by this raid.
Clearly shaken, Ms. Levy manages her emotions as she tries to interpret what happened. She questions, quite rightly, who has shot and edited the footage. She asks whether the possibility of shooting clandestine footage by a cell phone might have affected how this very loaded incident has played out. Ms. Levy even wonders why the children cried after the IDF left. Was this a phony propagandist piece made by the Palestinians?
Alexandrowicz has created a film with more questions than answers. It’s obvious that other people would have interpreted this rough footage quite differently. Many of us would have been horrified by this post-midnight incursion into a family’s life. But Levy’s interpretation could be right: perhaps this is manipulated footage.
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has created a film that engenders many questions. How is it that we can view actuality footage so differently? Are images, like art, intended for our personal interpretation? In a culture so used to visual representation, can anyone ever be allowed an unguarded moment? How does politics affect how we look at things? Does knowing the backstory of the people being shot play a role when looking at a video or photo? Can we classify anything as the truth?
Alexandrowicz points out in the film that Ms. Levy’s responses to the footage she saw calls into question whether a social or political documentary can actually change anyone’s mind. Yes, this is a documentary that calls into question the form’s continued existence.
The Viewing Booth is a thoughtful film that deserves recognition. I endorse this film.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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