Daphne du Maurier’s novels and short stories have provided the source for some great cinema over the decades, namely Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. My Cousin Rachel is certainly leagues away from those classics.
First adapted for the screen in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland playing Rachel and Richard Burton as her cousin, the new version sees Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin take over the roles.
It’s the 1830s, and at film’s beginning we learn through voice over that Philip (Claflin) was raised by his cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflan – albeit fleetingly), the owner of a large country estate on the Cornish coast. Due to ill health Ambrose moves to Italy where he meets another cousin, Rachel (Weisz), with whom he falls in love and marries. Philip however is concerned by the increasingly dark letters that Ambrose sends, and finds a secret note in one implying that Rachel means to do him harm.
Soon after Ambrose does in fact die, but as he never changed his will, his estate doesn’t go to Rachel but instead will go to Philip on his impending 25th birthday.
Not surprisingly Rachel sends word that she is coming to Cornwall where she will stay with Philip. He is determined to give her the cold shoulder, convinced she is responsible for the death of Ambrose. Upon her arrival Rachel seduces Philip so rapidly and with such ease that it scarcely seems credible.
This is a hurdle that the film never really recovers from, despite good work from the cast. As Rachel works her charms on Philip to the point where he’s ready to hand over everything he owns to her, the story itself doesn’t have the level of ambiguity it aims for, and suffers as a result. The resolution especially is weakened and comes across as downright muddled.
Director Roger Michell, who for the most part has had a career of making mediocre films, doesn’t show a lot of imagination. The scenes in which Philip is meant to be delusional or delirious are especially hackneyed.
The supporting cast are very good, especially Holliday Grainger as Philip’s childhood friend Louise, who has always been besotted with him, and Tim Barlow as the servant Seecombe, who seems to make a special effort not to know anything about what’s happening around him. We could have used a little more of his humour.
My Cousin Rachel is in technical terms, a fine production, handsomely photographed and with a quietly compelling score by Rael Jones, but narratively it fails to catch fire.
My Cousin Rachel is currently in national release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee