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Review: Rebecca at Somerset House for Film4 Summer Screen

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I can think of fewer places more perfect to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca.

Projected in the courtyard of London’s grand Somerset House, it feels like we could be in Manderley, the looming mansion that as is much a character as any of the film’s stars. “Last night I dreamt I went Manderley again, whispers Joan Fontaine as the film begins, setting the creepy, dreamlike tone for Hitchcock’s first American studio film.

The film is a genre blend of post-Hays code buttoned-up melodrama, thriller and gothic ghost story, without a ghost.

But before we get to Manderley, there is a fanciful trip to Monte Carlo. We see a moody Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) staring ominously down a cliff top. The raging sea theme is woven through both the book and the film. The first encounter of moody Maxim De Winter and his soon to be (yet never named) second wife sets up a nervy central performance by wide-eyed Joan Fontaine, and an icy, unpredictable portrayal of Maxim by Laurence Oliver.

The Monte Carlo scenes have the light beats of a period rom-com. Ms Fontaine is assistant to the ludicrously flamboyant Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) who is more than a little fond of the widower Mr De Winter. Despite her disapproval, a chaste whirlwind romance (albeit one blighted by the suitor delivering passive-aggressive admonishments) between her assistant and Max ends in marriage,

So then, to Manderley, where the storm clouds are gathering. The titular, deceased Rebecca is never seen but is omnipresent at the oppressive Cornish mansion. The staff and the family can’t stop talking about the beautiful society lady that died at sea. Her personal items are left perfectly arranged – shrine-like, including cushions with her initials R de W, embroidered on. Indeed, no one ventures into the hallowed West Wing since Rebecca’s departure. No one, that is apart from the grim-faced housekeeper Mrs Danvers (a fantastically creepy and deadpan Judith Anderson) who appears to glide around the mansion in austere fashion. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” she says, to intimidate the second Mrs De Winter.

Rebecca may be more dialogue heavy, and less violent than many of Hitchcock’s famous films, but shadowy suspense fills every frame.

The pace goes from eerie quiet to ever-increasing chaos. Window clatter, rain lashes off car bonnets, Rebecca ’s jealous ex-lovers (named, and hinted at) crawl out of the woodwork as the story builds to reveal the mystery of the life and death of first Mrs De Winter.

Somerset House is a fine setting for Hitchcock’s atmospheric classic. The Film4 Summer Screen runs until 22nd August.

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