My Cousin Rachel
Love, marriage and maybe murder in merry olde England
My Cousin Rachel (2017)
Directed by Roger Michell
Cast: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen
When readers think of traditional English novels, they often imagine fastidious tales of love and marriage among the aristocracy, tales of the sort that Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters typically trafficked in. Though she was writing a solid century after her above-named predecessors, English novelist and playwright Daphne du Maurier is usually categorized as a “romantic” author. Her books, however (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, among them) rarely feature conventional happy endings. In fact, her stories of love and intrigue among the picturesque estates of 19th century Cornwall frequently delve into dark and sinister territory. My Cousin Rachel—first published in 1951—is a perfect example.
As imagined by writer-director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson, Le Week-end, Notting Hill), the new cinematic adaptation of My Cousin Rachel starts out as a well-appointed portrait of upper-crust romance that slowly gives way to the increasingly shadowy brushstrokes of Gothic mystery. This makes it a perfect gateway drug for those with a distaste for too-proper historical melodramas and a genre-expander for those who have spent too much time swooning their way through Austenland.
Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) stars as Philip, a 24-year-old orphan raised from childhood by his beloved older cousin on one of those picturesque Cornish estates sometime round about the Regency Period. As our film starts, it seems that cousin Ambrose has wandered off to sunny Italy and fallen under the spell of a beguiling half-Italian woman named Rachel (Rachel Weisz from The Constant Gardner, not to mention Universal’s last Mummy reboot). Ambrose’s letters home conjure up a loving image of the woman, and the two end up married on the spur of the moment. But Ambrose’s last letter home takes a troubling turn. Sick and feverish, Ambrose suddenly accuses Rachel of conspiring behind his back to murder him and steal his inheritance. Philip races off to the Italian countryside to rescue his cousin. But by the time he arrives, Ambrose has passed away. And the mysterious widow? She has packed up and left.
Months later, back in Cornwall, Philip is informed that the as-yet-unseen Rachel is on her way to the family estate. Determined to confront the woman he believes responsible for his cousin’s death, Philip lies in wait. But when she arrives, Rachel isn’t the scheming black widow he was expecting. Reserved, sad-eyed and quietly charming, Rachel doesn’t seem to want anything from her late husband’s estate. According to her, poor Ambrose died of a brain tumor that left him paranoid and deranged in his final months. Coroner's reports appear to back up her story. Disarmed, Philip begins to dial back his vengeful thoughts, eventually stumbling down the same romantic path as his cousin.
But who is this woman Rachel? Is she the grieving widow she appears to be, or is she a calculating witch setting up Philip for an even bigger financial con? The slippery, seductive narrative, wisely, never tips its hand—forcing viewers to constantly reevaluate their loyalties. Claflin and Weisz are a well-matched pair. Claflin gives the best performance of his blockbuster-heavy career, making Philip a callow, wide-eyed puppy dog who can’t quite control his emotions. This forces him to veer from thoughts of steely revenge to naive fascination and back again. Weisz plays her much-more-worldly character perfectly—never an overt, conniving seductress, but a confoundingly complex character whose wounded manner and ambiguous intentions make her a puzzle worth solving.
Between its intriguing opening and its punchy ending, My Cousin Rachel does fall prey to the occasional lull in momentum. Both incriminating and exonerating evidence continue to pop up and goose the narrative along in the form of a few too many conveniently discovered secret letters (a 19th century trope, if there ever was one). Still, Michell’s nuanced script and subtle direction successfully elevate du Maurier’s self-consciously old-fashioned source material. During her lifetime, the author was often regarded as a prototypical writer of “bodice rippers.” But this cinematic adaptation (the first since a 1952 version starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton) emphasizes the intriguingly modern moral and psychological uncertainty at the center of du Maurier’s not-so-romantic story.