Director Roger Michell returns with MY COUSIN RACHEL, a relatively faithful adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel of the same name. The result is a competently made melodrama with some great performances, but one that never sinks its hooks in deep enough.
The film’s opening monologue is delivered by embittered protagonist Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), a young orphan left in the care of his uncle Ambrose in an idyllic manor house. Due to ill health, Ambrose is soon forced to relocate from the harsh winters of England to the warmth of Florence, Italy. There, he meets and falls in love with his distant relative and the film’s central enigma, Rachel (played brilliantly by Rachel Weisz). When Ambrose dies, Philip is convinced Rachel is to blame. “Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it”
This pre-title sequence monologue screams vengeance, stolen childhood and murder mystery – as does the piano jingle that accompanies it. For the most part Philip is all fury and smouldering stares, until Rachel finally occupies screen time 20 minutes into the film. This signals his transformation from a ticking time bomb of revenge, into a helpless love puppet who instantly falls for Rachel – although these two states of his mind don’t seem all that surprising, once we gauge that he’s essentially an emotionally untrained puppy.
“Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure…”
In Philip’s defence, Rachel is a transfixing character – Weisz is impossibly comfortable with a smiling ambiguity about her face. Likely the film’s biggest triumph, Rachel’s unknowable nature can be attributed to many things, one of which feels especially prominent – the suspicion that Rachel Weisz had made a decision about her character that at some point ran counter to the film’s decision about her character.
Hence, the main source of tension derives from the audience’s uncertainty of Rachel’s intentions. The main issue the film has is that the plotting feels like a trudge through heavy weather. Philip lavishes Rachel with expensive pearls, demonstrates that he is cavalier with family heirlooms, and eagerly awaits his twenty-fifth birthday. Rachel meanwhile occasionally rebukes Philip’s advances, concocts tisanes for him that may or may not be poisonous, and attempts to win back her late husband’s estate. None of these threads develop in a satisfying way, and for the most part only further a back-and-forth narrative where Rachel, whether calmly ambiguous or disarmingly forthright, remains comfortably in control throughout.
While there is never a sense that you are watching something devoid of vision or intention, all too often the stakes don’t seem high enough. The most interesting material here, by far, is the darkness that lurks within the film’s central themes. The Oedipal aspect of Philip and Rachel’s relationship is pretty murky and disturbing – kissing Philip goodnight, Rachel says; “Now go to bed, like a good boy”. There’s also an unease that arises from Philip’s perceived misogyny giving way to an unclean air of male sexual entitlement once he falls for Rachel. Very little of this is explored beneath a few telling lines and suggestions, however – which is a shame, and rather wasteful of Weisz and Claflin’s talents.
MY COUSIN RACHEL has much going for it, but it turns out that some great performances and nifty camerawork can only create a competently made drama, where a better flowing plotline and pursuit of the novel’s perversity could have created a more memorable, enduring one.