The soullessly glossy new version of Rebecca, paid for and distributed by the soulless gloss specialists at Netflix, lives in the shadows of ghosts. There is the ghost of Daphne Du Maurier's beloved 1938 novel, one of the pinnacles of inter-war Gothic fiction, still a widely-read classic. And there is the ghost of the 1940 film adaptation of that novel, an Oscar-winning Best Picture produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a classic in its own right, which enjoys ongoing popularity that any 1940s production would love to have.

Feeling crushed by the monumental reputation of one's predecessor and completely ill-equipped to live up to that legacy is, of course, Rebecca's whole thing, so I guess it's kind of neat that this new production - written by Jane Goldman and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse, which is a lot of people to perform what amounts to a transcription of the novel that ports over all of its incidents and leaves behind its ideas and meaning, and directed by Ben Wheatley - should feel so terribly unfulfilling and half-formed. It is the second Mrs. de Winter, in its way. Sadly, we are all of us Mrs. Danverses, and haughty, withering condescension is the only response that this new Rebecca deserves.

If that makes no sense, I suppose I should roll through the plot real fast. Rebecca is not a film about Rebecca - Rebecca is, in fact, dead when the story begins. It is instead about a meek, put-upon young woman (Lily James), so much those things that she never gets a name anywhere in the whole 121 minutes of the movie. We meet her at Monte Carlo, where she is the paid traveling companion of a loud, meanspirited American woman, Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), who treats her like a dog. And not even a well-liked dog. Fortunately for our mousy heroine,Β  Mrs. Van Hopper gets laid up one day, and this frees up the young woman to spend time with another guest at the hotel, the sexy, wealthy English landowner Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), who has been flirting with her for some time. They have beautiful, sun-dappled sex on the beach - an addition to Du Maurier, and one that threatens to derail the protagonist's character just as we're meeting her - and soon Maxim proposes marriage, taking his new wife to his sprawling home at Manderley.

This gets us about a quarter of the way through this Rebecca, and my response to this point was a crisp, confident "burn this fucking shit down to the ground and salt the ashes". At no point is the film really good, but it is only truly, irredeemably awful in this first stretch; the look is one of unrelenting digital slime, with everything too bright and crisp and given some grotesque-looking color correction to crank up the golden sunshininess of it, and the forbidden romance and flirtation with a rich sexy guy are heavily emphasised at the expense of any psychological undercurrents whatsoever. It acts, and worse still, it looks like a daytime soap opera, cheesy and cheap and excruciatingly overlit. The filmmakers have some vestigial awareness that they're trying to lead us in the direction of a Gothic thriller, and so the great composer Clint Mansell has attempted to compensate with a score that's ominously growling along in the bass, but when every other element of the film is lined up in the opposite direction, this just makes the music feel misguided and goofy. Meanwhile, any chance that this Rebecca might be able to work by reimagining itself as a pure romance is cut off at the knees by the total lack of chemistry between James and Hammer, neither of whom is very good separately, but are catastrophic together (she's clearly uncertain as to how much doubt and panic to feed into the character on a scene-by-scene basis, and she's entirely forgotten that her character is lower-class; he's playing the snappish and possibly dangerous Maxim pretty much from the jump, failing to add any of the melancholy charisma that might make a woman actually want to be with him. And anyway, the person who thought they could get away with casting the brick-shaped hunk of American man meat Armie Hammer as a fading English aristocrat deserves to be shot into outer space).

But then, we get to Manderley, and the film takes a massive step up in quality, landing at "forgettably mediocre". For one thing, it is exactly at this point that Sarah Greenwood's production design instincts kick into gear, and we start to see sets that have been carefully managed in line and color and texture to evoke the weariness of a house and a way of living that are tottering near death, while staying within the boundaries of realism. For another thing, cinematographer Laurie Rose is obviously jazzed up by all the plunging deep-space rectangles he gets to play around with, and the geometry of the shots starts to feel like it's actually doing something. Most importantly of all, Manderley is where we meet Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household and the high priestess of an unofficial cult dedicated to the memory of the late Rebecca de Winter, who devotes herself to making the second Mrs. de Winter feel horrible at every possible moment. Danvers was already the highlight of the 1940 Rebecca, as we all surely know, so it's not much a surprise that she's the highlight again, but just to make extra sure, they went and cast a ringer, Kristin Scott Thomas, who is such a perfect choice for the role that it's kind of revolting.

Judith Anderson set a standard in the first movie that could never possibly be matched, and Scott Thomas doesn't try. Instead (and unlike pretty much everyone else in the cast), she does what actors are supposed to do, breaking the character down into atoms and then rebuilding her. It is not, I mean to say, attempting to play the same character Anderson did, and thank God for that. Scott Thomas has instead given us a brand new Mrs. Danvers, animated by the same hostility for the second Mrs. de Winter and the same loyalty to Rebecca, but manifesthing those things in wholly different ways. This means, among other things, that sadly Mrs. Danvers is no longer a wicked lesbian (or, at least, she wasn't in love with Rebecca). What she is, though, compensates for it: she's a haughty snob, refined into a metallic sharpness that makes every arch of her eyebrow cut with bottomless disdain for the silly little girl muscling her way into Rebecca's spot.

Scott Thomas is obviously the best part of this Rebecca, and you can feel the entire film bend around her; truth be told, I get the very definite feeling that she was the only thing Wheatley cared about, because they only time he's doing anything other than giving us the most straightforward angles of the most straighforward blocking, it's when she's in the scene. This is a very far way from the giddy genre wallowing Wheatley was up to not even a full decade ago (hell, this doesn't even hold onto the light veneer of horror present in the book and the Hitchcock movie, unless you count grey, murky lighting in large manor homes as inherently horrific), and if I didn't know that this was made by a director that, at one point, I greatly admired, it would never have crossed my mind to suppose he was anything but the most pliable hack; the film has absolutely no life other than what it can greedily suck out of Scott Thomas's performance, and only the sets and Julian Day's superb costuming are giving it any consistent visual appeal. Meanwhile, Wheatley borrows shot set-ups directly from Hitchcock as often as he dares, making it even harder to understand what possible point this might have. Taking the cobwebby monochrome grandeur of the original and painting it in lurid digital colors is a trade-down by any reasonably standard, and the new film's cast is entirely unequal to the task of bringing Du Maurier's psychological ambivalence to life. It's exactly what a Netflix-produced Rebecca was always going to end up being, I regret to say: clean and shiny and robotic, in its acting and storytelling and visuals alike.