'My Cousin Rachel': Film Review

A deliciously dark mystery.
6/9/2017

Rachel Weisz plays the enigmatic title character in Roger Michell's romantic thriller based on a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, which also stars Sam Claflin.

A callow country lad falls for a worldly widow in the second big-screen version of My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier's brilliantly ambiguous tale of attraction and suspicion in Victorian-era England. Handsome and richly atmospheric, writer-director Roger Michell's adaptation is subdued grown-up fare that doesn't quite sustain the "did she or didn't she" mystery for its entire running time. But there's enough dark sizzle between leads Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin to keep the audience involved through the underpowered middle stretches before the film regains its footing, delivering a disquieting shiver of a conclusion.

The late-1830s action unfolds almost entirely on an estate near England's southern coast, where Philip Ashley (Claflin) prepares for the arrival from Florence of Rachel (Weisz), the widow of his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose and, he's certain, Ambrose's killer. As Michell establishes with tantalizing concision in the pre-title sequence, Ambrose's letters home had taken a couple of drastic turns in recent months, from enchantment to mistrust to outright terror. The new wife he initially describes as "my kindest companion" soon becomes "my torment," and before Philip can respond to the desperate plea his cousin has hidden in cramped scribble on the inner flap of an envelope, Ambrose is dead from a brain tumor.

Fired up for retaliation, Philip is instead instantly disarmed by the Italo-English beauty in widow's garb. With her cosmopolitan elegance, she's clearly the more self-possessed of the two. But even so, the younger man's resemblance to her husband (played by Claflin in a brief, wordless scene) unnerves Rachel. Weisz's exquisitely subtle performance suggests too that it excites her. Over civilized tea, she watches with alarm as butter drips from Philip's sandwich. "You'd better lick your fingers," she tells him. (Du Maurier used a stronger verb.)

In a household where the only females are of the canine persuasion, Rachel soon becomes de facto hostess, charming even the crotchety old servant Seecombe (a scene-stealing Tim Barlow), who had dreaded her arrival. Philip, in turn, morphs from sworn avenger to foolhardy protector, believing it his duty to right the matter of Ambrose's unfinished will and ensure that Rachel will have a proper inheritance. As he gets busy with legal paperwork and heirloom jewels, over the quiet objections of his godfather (Iain Glen), the family lawyer (Simon Russell Beale) and his lifelong friend Louise (Holliday Grainger), who loves him unrequitedly, the movie's sublime suspense gives way to a series of maneuvers and reversals that advance the plot in fits and starts.

In individual scenes, though, the questions that fuel the story continue to burn even when the narrative transitions are less than smooth. Those questions course beneath the Victorian etiquette like a fever: Is Rachel a scheming, murderous fortune hunter or a woman demonized for her modernity? (Not one but two male characters make pointed references to her limitless appetites.) Had Ambrose perceived her true intentions, or was he deranged from his illness?

As for Philip, the performance by Claflin, who has tended to play more polished romantic types, convincingly embodies a man of the land, one who rejects art and books and whose lack of sophistication leads to a misunderstanding of monumental proportions. Philip is so green that it isn't until he declares himself to Rachel — or believes he has — that he recognizes his feelings for her or the reasons for his profound dislike of her Italian confidant, the maddeningly hard-to-read Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino).

But no one is harder to read than Rachel, whose first grateful kiss to Philip is followed by a brusque shove. Though Michell at times seems to tip his hand as to her innocence or guilt, Weisz is never clearly one or the other, a spellbinding sphinx from first moment to last, by turns warm, forbidding, ebullient and calculating as she dispenses herbal teas that are either nurturing or toxic.

The first produced screenplay by Michell, whose directing credits include Notting Hill and Le Week-End, shows a sure grasp of the source material's complexities. He brings a couple of effective modifications to his otherwise faithful adaptation, as well as cinematic flair, with DP Mike Eley moving nimbly between countryside and candlelight. If Michell's direction doesn't always maintain an optimum tautness, he draws strong performances from an ace cast, with Grainger lending standout support as Louise, longing for Philip's affection but never crumbling under his neglect.

And he brings the world of the Ashley estate to dynamic life, particularly in a well-choreographed Christmas party that's a crucial turning point in the action. Here and throughout, the contributions of designers Alice Normington and Dinah Collin enhance the setting's specific mix of classes as well as the clash of personalities, just as Rael Jones' judiciously used score balances romance and foreboding.

There's a timeless psychological power to du Maurier's story, which was first brought to the screen soon after its publication, in a 1952 adaptation starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. Though it specifically addresses 19th-century codes governing marriage and property, its concerns with morality, social expectations and female independence still resonate. But above all, My Cousin Rachel is a beautifully tangled web of good and evil, innocence and experience. In a scene that epitomizes the film's discreet but charged sensuality, Michell, Eley and the two leads transform a lovely bluebell wood into a place charged with omen.

Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Production companies: Fox Searchlight, TSG Entertainment, Free Range Films
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen, Pierfrancesco Favino, Simon Russell Beale, Vicki Pepperdine, Poppy Lee Friar, Katherine Pearce, Tim Barlow
Director-screenwriter: Roger Michell, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier
Producer: Kevin Loader
Executive producer: Roger Michell
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Production designer: Alice Normington
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Music: Rael Jones
Casting: Fiona Weir

Rated PG-13; 106 minutes

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