Starring Rachel Weisz as Rachel Ashley and Sam Claflin as Philip, with a script more “inspired by” than faithful its source material, and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) at the helm, My Cousin Rachel brings a dark suspenseful Hitchcock-inspired vibrance to the Victorian Age breathing new life into the 1951 British novel by Daphne du Maurier of the same name.
From the outset, the initial tone established from the sweeping landscapes, methodically paced revelations, and perfectly coiffed people is like a clock winding ever tighter and ticking ever louder; but there’s a dreamy feel to the opening sequence leaving you not quite sure if the tale you’re about to watch is all in the past or as the speaker tells it.
Intrigue is afoot and it centers on a concept as old as time itself: the cost of love and the vagaries of fate (if you want to be wordy about it… which clearly I did).
This gothic romance revolves around young Philip’s suspicions regarding the death of his guardian (and cousin) and the mysterious, beautiful woman Rachel he married while convalescing abroad in Italy before his death. The questions lingers beyond his grave: did she or didn’t she?…
Any time a rich man with a young, beautiful wife dies early (even if he’s been so sick his physicians shuffled his behind off to the Continent), it seems whispers of foul play take flight before his body’s in the ground. Rachel it’s a breathy whisper, an a ever-mentioned name in the letters Philip receives from his cousin Ambrose. Michell’s film adaptation masterfully taps into the insidious insinuation to-silently-build an almost mystic tale of a murderess (maybe) in widow’s weeds.
With astonishing amount of skill, Sam Claflin portrays a wide-eyed, ingénue in the form of a country gentlemen. Philip is naive in the extreme. He’s grown up in a household of men (and way too many dogs allowed inside), and has absolutely no experience interacting with women of any age. He’s return to his country seat disenchanted with book learning, city life, and sophisticated people. This is a painfully obtuse and idiotically cocksure young man.
Claflin’s performance is striking and believable as he’s fully embraced his Tom Sawyer-esque looks which are shown to great advantage in period costume. Watching his concern grow as the tenor of his guardian’s letter from Italy change from brightly informative to broody and paranoid, it’s understandable that there’s no convincing him the unknown Rachel is not somehow to blame.
His confusion and petulant retaliatory actions are amusing and further serve to set the groundwork for his about face once the meets her and realizes she not one thing he expected.
Rachel Weisz is subtle, stunning, her performance astute and mesmerizing. She builds an extremely likable but equally suspicious widow with a winsome smile and slightly raised brow. The intentional inconsistency in her behavior towards Philip sets the stage to both believe her innocent of any wrongdoing and utterly guilty of leading the male of the species dangerously astray.
The supporting cast add to the realistic flavor of the time period and build the world this mystery unfolds cradling it delicately but seemingly out of pace with the wider world. Philip’s guardian and the executor of his cousin’s estate Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and his daughter, the extremely patient and forgiving, Louise Kendall are his confidantes and constant companions. The film is well served and made warmer by the additions an scense with people outside the primary pair. It’s hints of humor as well as the deepening uncertainty happen between here in the margins.
While I enjoyed the performances by Claflin and Weisz, and the film gets full marks for telling a beautifully tragic gothic tale; My Cousin Rachel falls short of the mark when it comes to building and maintaining its storytelling tension. Sam Claflin as the disembodied narrator throws the pace of this film out of sync at the opening sequence and it never fully recovers. Scenes intended to create pockets for the audience to waffle over Rachel’s motives are stretched too long.
These moments of deliberate silence are missed opportunities to truly integrate the Kendall’s further and much more actively into the story arc, both Iain Glen and Holliday Grainger are more than up to the task and doing so could’ve resolved the film’s pacing (and narrating) problems.
Michell leaves their role in laying out his bread crumbs far too sporadic and much too lean. It’s obvious from the trailers Michell knows how to build suspense but for some reason, when he took a final pass at the film itself, he slow everything down an unnecessary extra half-step. It’s noticeably off and will undermine suspense building – if not pull some people right out of the story- as it unfolds. It’s even more annoying because again, the trailer does a masterful job of pulling you in and holding you tense so you know the director had it him to pull it off in the end.
The end result is Claflin’s stupid boy overpowers Weisz nuanced femme fatale just a little too much – undoing some of the likelihood the audience will be conflicted about placing blame (in either direction) and taking some of the suspense out of the resolution. But Michell’s given his actors a great script, an unbelievable setting, and a mystery worth unraveling despite its pacing problems.
Grade B- (barely)
A dark and layered romance, MY COUSIN RACHEL tells the story of a young Englishman who plots revenge against his mysterious and beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. His feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling helplessly and obsessively in love with her.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Granger, Iain Glen, Pierfrancesco Favino, Simon Russell Beale, Vicki Pepperdine
Screenplay by: Roger Michell
Directed by: Roger Michell
Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier