My Cousin Rachel – directed and adapted for film by the estimable Roger Michell – is a period drama (make that melodrama) with most of the requisite virtues present and correct. It looks lustrous, it’s largely well-acted, and its settings are exquisite. It’s a passable, grown-up entertainment. It isn’t much more; but we shall come to that.
Rachel Weisz stars in the title role, as the cousin of Ambrose, a wealthy English gentleman who goes to Florence to boost his indifferent health. He encounters her, and at first finds her alluring. He writes letters back home to Cornwall to another, younger cousin and foster son, the naive Philip (Sam Claflin); Rachel, he tells Philip, is ‘radiant.’
But then the tone of his letters changes; Ambrose suspects Rachel is watching his every move, and may be poisoning him. Philip travels to Italy to try and rescue the situation, but arrives too late; Ambrose has died.
Philip understandably feels resentment and anger towards Rachel, which endures precisely up to the point he meets her. She’s dressed like a grieving widow, all in black, and she is frankly irresistible. To his surprise, she also seems pleasant and courteous – not at all an evil schemer. (Oh, no.)
It’s already clear that Philip is a hopelessly naive young man, who as we are told ‘knows nothing of women.’ Those of us watching might reasonably conclude that Rachel has her gaze firmly fixed on the family estate; indeed, Philip is advised as much by his stern godfather (Iain Glen). But nothing can deter his obsession with Rachel. His total lack of worldliness undermines the plot.
The film is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, and it’s already had a turn on the big screen; back in 1952, Olivia de Havilland starred as Rachel, while a young Richard Burton was Oscar-nominated for his role as Philip.
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As a younger man, Daphne Du Maurier’s novels fascinated me. On the face of it, she was essentially an adept romantic novelist – yet there was usually an unsettling edge to her stories. Her skill lay in keeping that edge as a mere undercurrent, as her plots played themselves out. Something about her writing fascinated Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted her Jamaica Inn for film, and also made masterpieces from her novel Rebecca and her short story The Birds. Another of her short stories, Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicolas Roeg, is one of the outstanding films of our time.
But even in my 20s, I never cared much for My Cousin Rachel. And it was Philip’s blindness to Rachel’s conniving that undermined its plot for me. The same holds true for Roger Michell’s otherwise efficient, attractive film; we as an audience simply know too much to be hoodwinked by Rachel, so we’re always a step ahead of the hapless Philip.
Claflin (outstanding as the ill-fated Tom Buckley in Their Finest), does his best with an almost implausibly naive character. But it must be said that Rachel Weisz is superb in the title role; there’s a quiet, composed subtlety about her acting that, when harnessed to her undeniable beauty, makes us wish cousin Rachel was less villainous than we fear.
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