IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Phillip is an orphan who has been brought up by his wealthy cousin Ambrose and is heir to his Cornish estate should Ambrose die. Ambrose travels to Italy and remains there because he falls in love with their cousin Rachel and marries her, but increasingly paranoid letters arrive from him in which Ambrose describes his worsening illness, his increasing desperation, and his growing certainty that Rachel has been poisoning him. He begs Phillip to come and rescue him, and Phillip hurries to Italy, where he is told that Ambrose has died of a brain tumour. Rachel is nowhere to be seen – at least four a while. She later turns up on Phillip’s doorstep, penniless because Ambrose never named her in his will, and Phillip begins to fall for her….
“Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” says narrator Phillip at the beginning, and those answers aren’t answered by the end of My Cousin Rachel, a film full of persistent and unresolved ambiguity which may frustrate some but should delight those who are in the mood to think about what they’ve just watched and try and work out things for themselves. Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was previously made into a film in 1952 and there was a later TV mini-series too. I haven’t seen either so I can’t compare, but this version takes an unusual approach for this kind of material, largely avoiding the typical Gothic doom and gloom, Roger Michell instead opting for a sunnier approach so in feel his film is closer to something like Far From The Madding Crowd. It works, just about, the Notting Hill director bringing some surprising visual flair throughout, with excellent use of close-ups and many scenes framed through window and doorways or bookended by props, while there’s one lengthy beautiful shot where Rachel is in bed and Phillip is outside, partly illuminated by a candle so he looks like a ghost. On the other hand some of the juicy melodramatics are downplayed, such as the incestuous nature of most of the relationships, and some potentially strong moments, like the climax, are somewhat underpowered.
The first act seems rather rushed with too much narration, but the film finds its feet as soon as Rachel makes her appearance and Phillips falls under her spell despite already having a close female friend in the form of Louise who clearly loves him, and soon having to deal with an increasing number of questions. What’s going on with Rachel’s Italian male friend who keeps visiting? Why has she overdrawn her accounts, despite the size of her allowance? Why is he beginning to feel ill? It’s easy to sympathise with the infatuated Phillip even while feeling like shouting at the screen to tell him what an idiot he’s being – at least until he commits an act which reveals that he has a very dark side and could well be more villainous than his wife. Sam Claflin is excellent in the part, if a little too young, and Rachel Weisz totally resists the temptation to go over the top with her character, also resisting the temptation to give anything away. Rachel can be many things to different people, but Weisz wisely never really lets us inside her head. In this story, Du Maurier seems to be gently mocking male fear of what would happen if a woman should gain power and money and want to be independent, adding both further psychological interest and a slight feminist subtext. Though perhaps lacking some of the edge it should, My Cousin Rachel is a great looking, finely acted and really rather thought provoking dark romance/mystery – but prepare to come away filled with even more questions than when it started. “Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” – well, I do have my own ideas, as may you.