REVIEW: My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Director: Roger Michell

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen

Running time: 106 minutes

3-stars

Orphaned at an early age, Philip (Claflin) was raised solely by his cousin, Ambrose. When Ambrose dies abroad on the eve of Philip’s 25th birthday, Philip – after a series of letters sent to him by his cousin prior to death – is convinced Ambrose’s mysterious wife Rachel (Weisz) is to blame. When she shows up at his Cornwall home, his rage quickly turns to obsession as he becomes infatuated with her. But what is she really after?

In many ways, it’s a shame that My Cousin Rachel – adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name – has been released within a matter of months as William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth. Had it not been, we might be saying very different things about it. Naturally, however, the inevitable comparisons are drawn almost instantly, and sadly for Roger Michell’s film, the Lady trumps the Cousin in almost every department.

That isn’t to say that My Cousin Rachel is terrible – it really isn’t. It’s just that there isn’t really anything here that separates it from the numerous cinematic adaptations of iconic British gothic dramas that have come before (and will likely follow).

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Opening with establishing shots of the beautiful but treacherous Cornish coastline, as Philip’s musing voice-over is heard: ‘Did she? Didn’t she?’, Michell immediately begins constructing a narrative of conflictions. Nothing is definitive. What is one thing can almost always be another thing. And in beginning with a question, you can be sure that you’ll walk away with more than one.

Sticking closely to the source material, the film does that powerful Harper Lee/Spielbergian thing of constructing a character largely through the perspective of another, and concealing that perceived monster from us until much later in the story. The narrative takes its time to unfold, and in all its slow-burning, Rachel, by her very narrative set-up, is mysterious and mythical almost from the get go – the proverbial bogey(wo)man if you will.

When she eventually does show up, however, Philip is rather surprised to be greeted by a woman of unquestionable charm and beauty. She’s confident, intelligent, and assured, while also exhibiting the odd sign of fragility and grievance. Rather than a bigger boat then, it quickly becomes apparent that Philip may just need a better judgement of character.

As the infatuation grows, and rumours of her sultry ways reach Philip, Rachel’s motives become increasingly more ambiguous, however. Is she after love, wealth, or something else altogether? Did she poison Ambrose? Exactly what goes into that ‘Twig Soup’ she makes specifically for Philip? In fact, somewhat ironically, in our growing suspicions of the titular character, we actually learn far more about Claflin’s Philip. He’s a stubborn pup who’s been raised in the absence of women, and who quickly and irrationally develops a possessive obsession with his cousin’s widow. He’s infuriatingly rash, believing material wealth is the way to a woman’s heart, and transitions from mature, educated young man, to moody, immature adolescent blinded by desire. And while Claflin plays this off commendably, it is the power of Weisz’s performance that makes this all the more plausible and effective. Her expressions, delivery and demeanour give very little away – as if the black veil she often wears to cover her face extends as a figurative curtain to her true nature. Yet, she retains that enigmatic confliction about Rachel throughout, so that this widow could just as easily be a damaged soul seeking liberty as she could be a femme fatale.

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In trying (and succeeding) to maintain the constant, inconclusive mystery of the tale, however, Michell’s film seemingly lacks any sense of passion or richness that would most certainly elevate it to the upper echelons of the genre. Rarely are we pushed to edge of our seats; the suspense is rife, but appears to plateau at the crucial moment. And so concerned with leaving as many narrative questions as possible unanswered, My Cousin Rachel inadvertently fails to answer the fundamental question of: is there anything truly memorable here?

Feeling a lot like part of a television period drama (which in many ways is far from a criticism), My Cousin Rachel too often feels like one of those, mediocre, mid-season episodes. It’s passable, but ultimately safe.

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