The British period drama is one that comes with a built-in formula: find a novel to adapt, emphasize the beautiful clothes and landscapes, air towards the prim and proper, rinse and repeat. When done right you have the makings of an enduring classic. Done wrong and your film soon becomes a lesson in learning to stay awake. So it is with Roger Michell’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, My Cousin Rachel. Michell proves adept at covering the scenic landscape, but the film is so chaste and minimalist as to remove ambiguity, nuance, and anything passing for interesting.
When his cousin Ambrose dies, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) becomes heir to Ambrose’s estate. Upset and believing his cousin died under mysterious circumstances he seeks to entice Ambrose’s widow, Rachel (Rachel Weisz) to come stay with him, in the hopes of discovering whether she’s a murderer. As Rachel becomes more ingrained in Philip’s life he starts to develop feelings for her, and symptoms that might indicate Rachel’s ill intentions.
Michell’s film certainly captures the feelings of a classic film (My Cousin Rachel is a remake of an earlier 1952 adaptation). Emotions are telegraphed early and abruptly. As Philip reads an increasingly desperate letter from his cousin, decrying Rachel as “my torment,” a rogue wind arrives. Rachel’s constant choruses of “drink” are breathily whispered with all the terror of “join us.” Du Maurier’s work often criticized the nature of social mores, acting as dark comedies of manner – see 1940’s Rebecca. In this case, Philip believes his uncle has been murdered, but can’t accuse Rachel outright. He takes the reins and seeks to investigate, though he’s a bit more Inspector Clouseau than Sherlock Holmes.
Once Rachel arrives the goal is to decide whether Philip’s fears are warranted or not, though there’s little ambiguity to be found. Having not read the original story I can’t comment on how similar the two works are, but there’s little mystery mined here. Philip and Ambrose’s history is hastily situated. Ambrose dies and Rachel arrives. Once Rachel crosses the threshold the movie doesn’t necessarily seem interested in telling us much of anything. The actors are compelled to carry on a romance, all the while feeding the audience reminders that maybe Rachel is evil – again, those urges of “Drink” are meant to give you all the indication you need. The issue is that there’s little way of inferring the opposite tact.
A strong story of ambiguity gives enough evidence to infer Rachel isn’t a murderer, and while characters give evidence it’s never given any proper resonance or weight. When a character’s devious intentions are revealed as false in the third act, it’s said with all the emotion of “Oh, didn’t you know that” and things move on. It doesn’t help that the pacing is jerky, making the hour and 45-minute runtime seem far longer. The whole affair is clean and beautiful to look at. Mike Eley’s cinematography takes in the breathtaking landscapes and foreboding cliffs. Inside the estate itself, everything is orderly, though far from unique if you’ve watched any previous costume drama.
As if walking in the footsteps of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland isn’t stressful enough, the actors are left to flounder with what seems like the outline of a script. Rachel Weisz is utterly dazzling as the title character. She’s regal and approachable, beguiling and understanding. Wearing her widow’s weeds her loss is either a front or acute, depending on how you’re meant to look at things. The film’s strongest moments are between Rachel and Philip, mostly because of how he often misinterprets their conversations. As he becomes more infatuated with Rachel she sees this as a means of showing her appreciation for fear of being turned out.
Much of what lies under the surface involves how women were treated during the period, often left with no money by husbands who assumed they’d remarry. Rachel, in this case, is different. She wants to be her own person, and Philip’s increasing obsession with her soon turns frightening. When Philip gets indignant that a night of passion was little more than a “thank you,” it’s shocking for the time period and also a moment of rebellion for Rachel – and proving how stupid Philip is. The love scenes are all shot out-of-focus, possibly for fear of those expecting a chaste PG-13, so it would be interesting to see an R-rated take on the material.
Where Weisz is the star poor Claflin is the also-ran. The film is told from his point of view, and he spends most of his time being an idiot in various forms, whether believing Rachel’s a murderer, a slut or greedy. There’s little to latch onto regarding his personality other than basic tropes like naive and spoiled, yet the movie ends with a relatively happy ending that sews things up quickly for him. As with nearly every emotional beat in the script, we’re never given any glimpses into the characters short of surface. Claflin’s acting ends up being all surface, merely reading the words to Weisz’s more nuanced performance.
My Cousin Rachel plays like a Spark Notes version of the novel if the person interpreting it just knew the plot. Despite another amazing performance from the always dependable Rachel Weisz, My Cousin Rachel is nothing more than glittering paste jewelry. Emotions are meant to run high but there’s little spark. The whole affair comes off as utterly lifeless, if gorgeous to look at.