Lily James Armie Hammer Kristin Scott Thomas Tom Goodman Hall Sam Riley
The film starts out to be the intriguing, guilty pleasure that the novel on which it was based was. Daphne Du Maurier’s book was a hit from the beginning of its publication in 1938, described by a publisher as “everything the public could want”, and, even currently, it’s considered a “marvelously gothic tale with a good dose of atmospheric and psychological horror” (Critics for The Independent, “The 40 best books to read during lockdown”, 8/22/2020). The book has never been out of print since its first publication.
This rendition in film (coming after Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award winning film in 1940 and various others less notable) has a talented cast, beautiful production, costumes, and music, and for most of it keeps the viewer liking this kind of drama engaged.
The captivating story is about a rather naïve, unnamed companion (Lily James) to a dowager, bumping into a wealthy widower, the famed Maxim de Winter (Hammer) by accident several times in Monte Carlo. He is taken by her and pursues her on clandestine dates to the point of proposing marriage. She’s very appealing both in her naïvete and her passion for adventure and knowledge. He’s gallant and honorable, and after a couple of weeks proposes, after which they settle on his estate well known as Manderly, a property passed down in the family for 300 years.
That’s when the mystery starts, as there is a ghost hanging over the mansion in the form of the former, now deceased, Madam de Winter perpetuated by the entire staff led by Mrs. Danvers (Thomas), the housekeeper. Most people know the story well, and the film adheres very closely to Du Maurier’s novel.
First, to the fine cast. Lily James (Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) is a gifted actress who is adept in her convincing characterizations, and is so appealing here in transforming the well-read but experience-deprived pretty blonde into an assertive, intelligent detective. As Maxim, Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name, The Social Network, J. Edgar) delivers his usual excellence in craft, playing a very different role as a wealthy gentleman. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gosford Park, Only God Forgives) is almost a legend in capturing diverse roles and coming across as a powerful figure. She is truly intimidating here when she is wanting to come across as either formidable, helpful, or vindictive. Actors like Sam Riley, Tom Goodman Hall, and Beatrice Lacey fully support these stars in their bringing us a well-known story.
The place where I think the production declines in value is toward the end, when it seemed like the filmmakers were just eager to end the project in whatever way possible. The biggest offense in this to me is when we see Madam de Winter lighting up a cigarette as she reflects on her transformation. The tobacco company who helped fund the movie must have paid a fair amount to have this be a part of her reflection. I don’t recall the character ever smoking throughout the movie. Was that supposed to convey that she is sophisticated now? Give me a break. This whole ending of the film seems tinny and out of character with the preceding drama, and the abrupt change in the ingénue into a sharp-minded sleuth and fighter turns out to be jarring.
Guilty pleasure probably best describes this production. The pleasure mostly comes from cast performances and from the timelessness of the story, one to which so many of us are susceptible.
Grade: C By Donna R. Copeland