My Cousin Rachel may be narrated by a male character, but make no mistake, it’s Rachel, both the title character, and star Rachel Weisz who plays the part, who dominates the movie, and she doesn’t even appear on camera for twenty minutes. Sam Claflin plays Philip, the young narrator and protagonist of writer/director Roger Michell’s (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, Venus, Morning Glory, Hyde park on Hudson) adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novel.
Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose, and as Philip himself admits, “the only women in the house were the dogs.” Philip grows up in a frat house-like, disheveled masculine paradise under Ambrose’s mentoring. And his complete lack of experience with women is the only way to explain some of the boneheaded stunts this boy pulls along the way. Redoubtable Scottish actor Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) as a family friend and lawyer is some source of adult supervision, but these boys are otherwise pretty much on their own. His slightly tomboyish daughter, Holliday Grainger, is virtually the only girl Philip knows.
Ambrose, however, is eventually compelled to winter in Italy for his health, while Philip pines and waits for letters. Soon those letters tell glowingly how he’s being nursed by his charming cousin Rachel, and soon that he’s married Rachel. The letters soon become paranoid-sounding, referring to his new bride as “Rachel, my torment,” and begging Philip to come to his aid. Philip wastes no time traveling to Florence, a stark contrast to the green and gray cliffs of Cornwall, only to find Ambrose already dead and Rachel gone. Instead he finds strange Italian man, Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino). The questions mount. Is he another of Rachel’s many rumored lovers?
Philip is quick to believe Rachel responsible for his guardian’s death, despite the fact that his condition seems to have originated in Cornwall, and vows revenge: “Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it.”
Michell’s script mother of mixed signals
Up to this point in his life, the only love Philip has ever known is toward his guardian and his hatred of Rachel inevitably manifests itself as misogyny. But it also bears noting that Michell’s script is the mother of mixed signals. As soon as damning, but always circumstantial evidence appears, it is balanced by something exculpatory. The movie to a large degree functions, and in fact thrives, by bouncing the audience between suspicion and relief. Although Rachel certainly doesn’t inspire our confidence, it isn’t easy to believe the worst of her either. The audience may well be aware that in 1830 England, a woman had next to no economic power on her own, and in many cases her options lay between charity and chicanery.
Hitchcockian meditation on guilt and jealousy
And insofar as this goes, My Cousin Rachel is a distinctly Hitchcockian meditation on guilt and jealousy, though Michell cannot lay claim to Hitchcock’s adroit talent for building suspense in an ostensibly leisurely first act. Hitchcock drew from Du Maurier’s literary well three times – Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) – more than any other single author – probably because Du Maurier traded in themes and material close to his own Catholic sensibilities.
Michell certainly understands the dangerous emotions at play and milks them for all they’re worth, and Claflin, thankfully, is able to effectively play the agonizingly naive Philip as a drug addict of sorts, unable to give up Rachel no matter what the cost. But Michell cannot match Hitchcock’s sure-handed craftsmanship with the art of quiet suspense. It’s admittedly not easy to make a genuinely suspenseful drama out of an is-she or isn’t-she character like Rachel without tipping one’s hand too early. But Michell cheats, as the movie enters its third act, withholding information from the audience which the characters already have access to.
Rachel Weisz works with palette of subtle hues
He needed to have more faith in his leading lady, who here works with a palette of emotional hues of subtle distinction, much like the landscape itself. It’s pure pleasure to watch Weisz as Rachel, herself an actress, effortlessly adapting to suit the needs and desires of whoever she’s seducing. In Philip’s case, she nurtures first, morphing into the mother he has always lacked, then letting matters turn carnal, when Philip’s physical urges grow beyond his control. She certainly uses her sexuality as a tool, maybe even a weapon. But is she a murderess? Her herbal teas could be poison or medicinal. Philip’s growing paranoia filters his perception to the point of unreliability.
Eventually, of course, we have to resolve some of these issues, and My Cousin Rachel does. It’s probably inevitable that the answers, when finally uncovered, are less rewarding than the questions. The movie’s greatest pleasures are in the ambiguities. But when those are provided by an actress of Weisz’s talent, those pleasures are pretty great indeed.