THERE’S a moment in Rebecca—Daphne du Maurier’s haunting 1938 novel—when, dressed for a costume ball at Manderley, her husband’s stately ancestral home, the second Mrs. de Winter peers at herself in the mirror. In both the book and Alfred Hitchcock’s noirish 1940 adaptation, her dress, copied from a painting in the house, is a white, flouncy thing finished with puffed sleeves, a sash, and a “wide floppy hat.” But in a new iteration from director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise), the look is far more sinuous—a crimson velvet column out of a John Singer Sargent portrait.
Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s redoubtable housekeeper, the film, which premieres this month on Netflix, offers a stylish update on du Maurier’s text that begins with the clothes—all 1930s-appropriate pieces that don’t actually feel so 1930s-appropriate. “We didn’t want the period to be the main focus,” says James. “Actually, I sort of forgot it was period.”
James’s Mrs. de Winter is less submissive than in earlier tellings: As she learns of her husband’s first wife—the spectral, eponymous Rebecca—she passionately pursues the mystery of her untimely death. In that sense, Wheatley says, “the film exists in a halfway house between what she is telling us and what we’re actually seeing.” Moving away from the high collars and tea-length skirts of Hitchcock’s version, a wardrobe of sporty knits, wide-legged pants, and easy shift dresses by costume designer Julian Day helps establish Mrs. de Winter’s self-possession. (Among Day’s wildly varied prior projects are Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Diana.) “This was just on the cusp of when women started wearing trousers and their clothing was becoming less structured,” says Day, who developed an aesthetic that has its most colorful expression in Monte Carlo, where James’s character and Hammer’s Maxim de Winter—prizelike in a dashing gold suit—first fall in love.
The effect is decidedly different at Manderley, with its shadowy rooms and starchy staff. (The imposing Hatfield House, about an hour outside London, was its stand-in for the film.) Like the narrow bodice of that striking red dress—a variation of which Rebecca had once worn herself—life at Manderley is uncompromising, with the steely Mrs. Danvers standing at its center, clinging to Rebecca’s memory. (In one disquieting scene, she urges the second Mrs. de Winter to touch her predecessor’s nightclothes, which had been diligently preserved.) Yet in creating her costume, Day and Scott Thomas lingered less on Mrs. Danvers’s severity than on her sense of loss.
“We learn from the novel that she was Rebecca’s nanny and was by her side through her teenage years, through her marriage,” Scott Thomas says. “So that affection or obsession or love or whatever you call it that she has for Rebecca is extremely deeply rooted. It’s passionate; it’s possessive.” To tell that story visually, Day landed on a wonderfully effective metaphor. “Once Rebecca had passed away, Mrs. Danvers was like a bruised person,” he says. “So when you look at her blouses, all those colors represent the way a bruise changes its color—the dark purple, to the blues, to what we see at the end, when it’s gone slightly ochre-y.”
Similarly transformed by the film’s finale is Mrs. de Winter. In solving the mystery of Rebecca’s death and finding her footing at Manderley, she also changes the dynamic within her marriage: Now clad in her own golden suit, she becomes the prize. “I liked that the suits bookend the movie,” Wheatley says. “It’s almost like a personality that Maxim kind of packs away, and then she unpacks her own version.” Ultimately, adds James, that golden ensemble “felt like a suit of armor.”