How Truth Controls the Narrative in ‘Rebecca’ (2020)

There are two sides to every story. According to actor Paul J. Alessi, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In Rebecca (2020) this is no different. The truth in the film is not black or white; the truth of the narrative is instead coloured grey.

Perhaps no character is more grey than Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). From the second he appears on screen with a whispered “Don’t do it, I’ve heard he’s a terrible bore,” de Winter attempts to control the truth, the narrative, and the protagonist’s perception of him, in his tailored three-piece suits.

For readers unfamiliar with its subject, Rebecca is a 2020 adaption of the 1938 Gothic novel of the same name, written by Daphne du Maurier. Within the story, a young woman – the unnamed protagonist (Lily James) – becomes romantically involved with a mysterious Maxim de Winter. Upon marrying de Winter, the protagonist returns with him as Mrs. de Winter to gorgeous Manderley, the historic de Winter estate. Both the protagonist and her marriage are overshadowed by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) and haunted by the ghost of de Winter’s first wife, the titular Rebecca de Winter.

Rebecca is not the first narrative venture into the ‘crazy’ ex-wife stereotype. Many would think of Jane Eyre: governess Jane, reclusive Mr. Rochester and Bertha, his wife in the attic. However, it is interesting how de Winter controls the narrative – his narrative – while remaining a distant husband. In the eyes of Maxim de Winter, the protagonist’s crime is her insatiable curiosity. During their vacation, while exploring the sandy beaches of Monte Carlo, de Winter veils the truth with simple commands: “Please, let’s not” and “Put that back”. With a single breath, almost as if the idea is an afterthought, he abruptly changes the direction of the protagonist’s life: “Come with me to Manderley”. 

However, the truth is also hidden in what is left unsaid, or the middle. On their first night as newlyweds at the sprawling estate, de Winter tells his wife, “All marriages have secrets.” He indirectly tries to keep the protagonist from exploring the old seaside cottage. He accuses the protagonist of flirting with Jack Favell (Sam Riley). After an explosive argument, he does not return the protagonist’s “I love you.” Maxim de Winter intentionally manipulates the protagonist’s perceptions in order to protect himself from exposure. He is the foil to her metaphorical truth.

Perhaps du Maurier left the protagonist unnamed because she symbolizes not only the living, beating heart of the story, but also pure, unthwarted truth. “How am I supposed to know?” Mrs. de Winter pleads to her husband. “How am I supposed to know if you don’t tell me?”

With painful naivete and raw honesty, she tells her husband that there should be no secrets in a marriage. She is unable to withstand pretense, such as taking on the quiet Clarice (Bryony Miller) as a maid, despite insisting to Mrs. Danvers that she does not need one. She confesses to accidentally breaking an expensive Dresden piece from Rebecca’s preserved private rooms in the west wing. But most of all, however, the protagonist insists on learning Manderley’s secrets, no matter how much the estate and its inhabitants may push back, both in reality and her nightmares.

Ironically, the truth begins to be unmasked at a masquerade ball. Mrs. de Winter wears a costume, which is inspired by a Victorian portrait of de Winter’s deceased relative, Caroline de Winter. The costume is beautiful and inoffensive, except for the fact that the ill-fated Rebecca had worn it previously. Mr. de Winter commands his wife to change. “I should have never brought you back here,” he harshly whispers in his wife’s ear. In the final third act of the film, the truth finally surfaces, much in the same way as Rebecca’s doomed trawler.

Mr. de Winter’s strive for control isn’t necessarily founded on misogynistic roots, despite the 1930s time period. Instead, it is his fear of the truth being discovered. He says it himself: it is both his cowardice and his pride. In a last attempt to shape both the narrative and what the protagonist believes, he lists a litany of Rebecca’s supposed crimes, including bullying, infidelity, and incest with her cousin, Favell. He utilizes this behavior to justify him shooting Rebecca and dumping her body on a boat. The modern equivalent is a high school boy saying that his ex-girlfriend was ‘crazy’ for craving the simplest of things.

Yet, throughout the entirety of the two-hour film, there is no substantial, believable proof of Rebecca’s evil behavior. Instead of damaging rumors, Rebecca is immortalized with honor among the inhabitants of Manderley. For example, Frank (Tom Goodman-Hill), the long-term groundskeeper, supposedly cries at the sea cottage doors. Mrs. Danvers remains hopelessly devoted to her deceased charge. The only time that anyone concurs with Maxim de Winter’s assessment of his late wife is when his family visits the newlyweds. Beatrice (Keeley Hawes), de Winter’s sister, whispers snidely into the protagonist’s ear: “Irresistible to everybody. The men, women, children, animals.”

The one thing for certain in the narrative is that Rebecca lived her life fully. In the early 1900s, a certain type of independence was reason enough to label a woman as ‘crazy’. Before her dramatic exit, Mrs. Danvers said it best: “She lived her life as she pleased, my Rebecca. No wonder a man had to kill her.”

By the end of the film, the goddess truth succumbs to Manderley and its dark, earthly roots. The protagonist twists reality into a narrative that benefits both her and her husband, because he is the only one she has. Supposedly happy, she is on the run with Maxim de Winter, but she has betrayed her values. De Winter will face no repercussions for the murder of his first wife, no matter whether the crime was justified or not. In the end, the truth and self-preservation do not align. It’s fitting that the last name translates into ‘of Winter,’ because even the truth dies in frost.

That truth is that there is no substantial proof that Rebecca was evil, except for de Winter’s word and the snide remark of his sister. While no one left Manderley unscathed, Rebecca is the truest victim. The dead woman is put on trial, unable to defend herself. Perhaps her only crime was having the audacity to marry Mr. de Winter before the protagonist did.

Some may view the themes of Rebecca as the epitome of Gothic romance, and that love triumphs over everything. After all, the protagonist describes love as “something worth walking through flames for.” However, this viewer perceives the story as a different monster entirely: even the truth can be blind.

Header image courtesy of Netflix