Reviews – Rebecca; The Trial of the Chicago 7

There are those who might take issue with the new version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, thinking perhaps that why should someone bother, given the existence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award-winning 1940 adaptation.

Well, I don’t have the same reverence for that film as others have, and on any given day there are at least ten other Hitchcock films I’d rather see. (You didn’t ask me, but they are: Shadow of A Doubt, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds, Frenzy, The 39 Steps, Sabotage–and there are others besides.) Having said that, this new Rebecca, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas, with a script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and direction by Ben Wheatley does have a few things going for it.

For one, this 2020 Rebecca (Netflix) is able to be a little more faithful to the original novel in certain respects. If you don’t know the plot, it involves an unnamed lady’s companion (the narrator is unnamed in the book and the film) who becomes the bride of brooding well-to-do widower Maxim de Winter, whose wife Rebecca perished a year earlier—and tries to overcome the huge shadow cast by Rebecca, the rigidities of England’s class barriers, and her own awkwardness and naiveté (not to mention the machinations of head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers). And because it is 2020, the film is a bit freer (as in no need to worry about the censors) to include certain aspects of Rebecca’s character, her actual fate, as well as certain heretofore unspoken elements of certain relationships.

The question is, have the filmmakers brought anything new and worthwhile to the table. In terms of the new and worthwhile, I would day Kristin Scott Thomas brings many carefully crafted shadings to the steely, malevolent Mrs. Danvers, so that when a certain plot twist occurs, one can understand somewhat how it has been allowed to happen. (Although why she continues to be “on the payroll” throughout the story is a problem no one has been able to surmount.) The two leads are attractive and sincere—albeit in roles that demand a little more.  Hammer’s Maxim de Winter is closer in age to James’ bride/narrator—and a little less intimidating because of it; James is appealing and tries to make her character’s transition from doormat to “detective” plausible—but the wheels of the plot contrive against that. In addition, the film is lovely to look at (opulence certainly photographs better now!) but this works against an atmosphere of menace and suppressed feelings. So…if you’re asking is this remake worth your while—well, it won’t kill you, but there are other ways to spend your time.

Much more entertaining (and relevant) is Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Some of you might remember the anti-Vietnam War protests and the riots that ensued at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago—or you may have read or seen news footage about it, and the subsequent trial of seven key (well, one or two not-so-key) figures for conspiracy and inciting riots. While there have been other adaptations of note, this one has some particularly fine performances and is quite adroit at integrating humor and modern day parallels into its skillfully constructed screenplay.

While some of the outlandish aspects of the trial may stretch credulity (as in one defendant’s being gagged and chained, another choosing to mimic the judge’s garb and demeanor) one may be assured (or disturbed) that many of these things happened. The defendants (including Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden—and for a short time Black Panther leader Bobby Seale) seem to have taken a page from the 1940s “Hollywood Ten” playbook in overtly challenging the authority of the judge and the system (with citations of contempt to follow), while their rumpled defense attorney William Kunstler, along with Leonard Weinglass, try (in vain) to argue that their clients did not instigate the riot (point of order: Ramsey Clark, Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson had investigated and found the police instigated the riots; after the change in the White House to President Nixon, the new Attorney General chose to discount those findings and pursue criminal charges.) Needless to say, hard-liner Judge Hoffman (well-played by Frank Langella, especially when he takes pains to disassociate himself from defendant Johnson) is distinctly not amused, either with the defendants or with their stance (and definitely not with their hair).

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is well-done in so many ways. The narrative skillfully blends the trial with key flashbacks and behind-the-scenes discussions/recriminations. The performances are exceptional: Sacha Baron Cohen is amusing and persuasive as Hoffman, while Eddie Redmayne makes for a convincingly passionate and conflicted Hayden. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is excellent as a very volatile Bobby Seale, angered at being “lumped in’ with the Seven and antagonizing the Judge in the process. Michael Keaton has some excellent scenes as Ramsey Clark (making one wistful for the times when being an Attorney General didn’t represent partisan politics), while Mark Rylance makes Kunstler into a harried, haggard, but inveterate and outspoken defender of truth. And of course, Sorkin does a masterful job of showing how the trial and protests have a special meaning in light of the sorry state of our current events (the fact that one of Seales’ defenders, Fred Hampton, was shot during a police raid while the trial was proceeding also has a painful relevance.) Where Sorkin muffs it is in the Capra-esque finale that serves to muffle the impact of the proceedings at the time (and the miscarriage of justice it was known to have become). In any case, it is a film well worth your time—and it is an especially good time to see it.

Mike Peros
Author: Mike Peros

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.