My Cousin Rachel
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Sam Clafin and Iain Glen
A young Englishman plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.
‘Did she? Didn’t she? Who was to blame?’
It’s good to be upfront with our biases because sometimes it’s important to know where someone is coming from so I’ll be up front with mine: Costume dramas are not really my thing. In fact I lump them in with the fantasy genre more often than not mainly because I don’t find them interesting and they’re inherently white. Also, Lord of The Rings is just awful; they are a terribly boring trilogy of films. Now with that and the little bit of LOTR trolling out of the way, I can say that there are always exceptions to those biases.
Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre is exceptional but then again, Cary Fukunaga is an exceptional director and it’s one of this century’s greatest silver screen tragedies that we’ll never get to see his adaptation of Stephen King’s It. But a movie has to be judged on its own merits, regardless of fidelity to the source material, and Jane Eyre had a lot more going on than your average costume drama. It was beautifully shot and it had a wonderful sense of atmosphere and mood which was complemented with striking performances from Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.
It’s also worth pointing out that “costume drama” is often unfortunately lumped in with the idea that only women would want to watch them which is of course highly patronising, sexist nonsense. What is true is that there has almost certainly been resurgence of sorts, certainly on television, of the costume drama. Poldark sticks out for one but mainly because there’s a tabloid fascination with that Irish fella who takes his shirt off a lot. I can’t remember his name but he was in one of those pointless LOTR films. I mean, they’re all pointless (last troll, I promise).
But then, much like herpes, the costume drama never really goes away. Film adaptations of romantic novels from the likes of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters aren’t exactly in abundance nowadays mainly because there’s a bigger audience for it on TV and also there’s much more scope to tell a full bodied story on TV. But some do still get made and it’s honestly refreshing in an era where it seems every other movie is a bloodless comic book adaptation (looking at you Disney/Marvel).
Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is adapted for the screen by writer/director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and it tells the story of Philip Ashley (Sam Clafin), an orphan raised by his older cousin Ambrose (again played by Clafin). Ambrose, who is suffering from ill health, travels to Italy hoping the warmer climes will aid his recovery.
Whilst there he marries – somewhat surprisingly as we are told by other characters he just wasn’t the marrying kind, possibly hinting that he might be gay – his half Italian cousin (who Philip has never met before). Ambrose dies but not before some letters have been sent home to Philip that doubts the true character of his new wife Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Philip travels to Florence to find out that not only has Rachel left but he, not Rachel, is heir to Ambrose’s entire estate. Ambrose’s paranoia about his wife is explained away by Rinaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), the couple’s Italian lawyer, as symptoms of his fatal brain tumour.
The story really kicks into gear when we learn that Rachel will be coming to the estate to visit Philip and the build-up to her arrival is genuinely well done. We hear so much about her before she arrives that we’re convinced she must be some wicked, black-widow esque blood sucking female but when she turns out to be the luminous Rachel Weisz, both we and Philip are taken aback.
Weisz is one of the best and most interesting actresses around and she’s great in this but the chemistry between her and Clafin isn’t quite there. He’s fine in it but he’s possibly miscast as we are led to believe later on in the film that she can’t possibly marry him because he’s too young. The problem is that he doesn’t look that young but then again Weisz is a fantastic looking 47 year old.
There’s a slickness to proceedings that prevent this film from being a more engaging mystery romance. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch but this lacks the mood and atmosphere that something like Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre has in spades. Similarly a plot point later on, that most audiences will likely have a problem with, would have made more sense if we had a better grip on Philip’s infatuation with Rachel. Interestingly the film opens and ends with voice over narration and normally it’s a tricky device to use well (and goes against the old “show don’t tell” adage) but further use of it have helped give a better understanding of Philip’s motivations.
Also, this film does that annoying thing of starting dialogue in one lush location only to finish it off in another lush location. Michell does this a lot and it starts to grate after a while which belies a lack of confidence in the material. And similarly the score has a recurring piano motif that began to jar pretty quickly.
The mystery element of the film rests on the audience’s knowledge that Rachel may in fact be a black widow and possibly poisoned her late husband and the tension that arises when Philip gains this knowledge but the twists and turns regarding this part of the film feel somewhat perfunctory and lack nuance. There are some interesting questions raised about trust, love and how it can skew our perspective but the screenplay never really delves into them in any meaningful way.
My Cousin Rachel is a slick adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel but even though it’s well acted (particularly by Weisz) it never really sizzles or truly engages you on anything more than a surface level. It is ultimately a diverting Sunday afternoon type of film but sadly nothing more.