MY COUSIN RACHEL is a True Gothic Family Reunion

Despite some workmanlike touches, My Cousin Rachel is a beautifully dark piece of summer arthouse fare.

My Cousin Rachel has everything an arthouse audience could want from an early summer release such as this: costumes, period furnishings, forbidden romance, and an involving mystery, all of which come from the mind of one of the most celebrated writers who was ever able to tap into the darkness of the human heart. Author Daphne Du Maurier’s complex , yet enthralling work has been translated brilliantly to the screen before by Alfred Hitchcock, whose re-telling of the writer’s gothic love story Rebecca remains a haunting classic. The director was so in sync with Du Maurier’s language, theme, and style that he turned to her work again as the basis for The Birds. Likewise, Nicholas Roeg enjoyed the best work he ever put out by adapting Du Maurier’s terrifying short story Don’t Look Now for the screen, a thrilling, yet poignant comment on love and loss. Both directors are clearly night and day as filmmakers, yet the two were able to hone in on the author’s knack for poetry and torment almost succinctly. It’s a shame then to see that with My Cousin Rachel, director Roger Michell, for all his experience of having crafted solid films in the past, can’t seem to maintain a sturdy technical grasp on Du Maurier or what makes her work so compelling to this day.

In My Cousin Rachel, 24-year-old Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) returns to the estate of his much older cousin (also Claflin), the man who raised him, only to discover that he’s fallen ill. In an effort to improve his health, Philip sends his cousin to Italy to recover. Soon after, Philip receives a letter from his cousin stating that he has married an enchanting widow named Rachel (Rachel Weisz). After more letters arrive from his cousin stating that he believes Rachel is trying to poison him, Philip heads to Italy, only to discover that the sick man has died and Rachel is nowhere to be found. Eventually, word arrives saying that Rachel intends to come to stay at his cousin’s estate, which now belongs to Philip. While his godfather (Iain Glen) and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) believe her to be a lovely woman, Phillip is convinced that Rachel murdered his cousin and is determined to prove so, if he can keep from falling in love with her.

While My Cousin Rachel has its share of problems, as a Du Maurier adaptation, it actually manages to get a lot right. The biggest attribute of Michell’s film is that he’s managed to keep the story’s sensibilities firmly in tact. The plot’s wonderfully gothic feel and tone are present throughout and never leave, managing to exist even in scenes of picturesque daylight and joviality. The director also manages to bring forth the film’s themes of madness, despair, and overall darkness to the forefront, letting both his actors and the audience get endlessly caught up in the trappings of a world full of haunted anguish. Helping to carry the proceedings along is the film’s perfect cinematography, set design, and costuming, as well as Du Maurier’s recurring theme of the influence of the dead over the living. Best of all is the great care and attention that has been paid towards charting Philip’s journey from suspicion towards full-on obsession with Rachel. It’s the journey and its aftermath which greatly carry the film in the second half, with the main character finding himself questioning everything he knows is true, while at the same time wrestling with what he sorely yearns to be true.

And yet all of this is not enough to fully ignore the problems which sadly plague My Cousin Rachel. Michell has amassed a filmography as diverse as one can get, from the Julia Roberts “classic” Notting Hill to the warmly sentimental Venus. Yet here, the director seems at a loss from a technical perspective. With a pacing that’s beyond rushed, resulting in scenes which wrap up far too quickly, you get the sense that Michell was perhaps intimidated by the delicacy of the material, and as a result, decided to play it safe when he stepped behind the camera. Adding to this is a heavy handedness that’s just too difficult to ignore. Scenes of someone handing another individual a cup of tea or shooting a certain look at another character ram their points home with a vengeance instead of being mere hints. The irony of all this is that Michell actually GETS the film’s ideology (evidenced by his great script), but won’t let his technical side experiment with it on a visual level. This particular author and this type of film are both all about atmosphere, which My Cousin Rachel could have had plenty of had it had been allowed to properly breathe.

The two leads have an interesting problem in trying to eschew Michell’s sometimes pedestrian approach to the material in their efforts to do good work. Weisz manages this, giving one of her most magnetic and heartbreaking turns to date. The role of Rachel is far from easy, continuously toeing the line between victim and villain. Not only must the audience fear Rachel, they must also sympathize her. It’s a delicate task, which Weisz magically pulls off. Claflin is less lucky. While the actor is able to tap into Philip’s infatuation with Rachel, Michell fails to reign in his more grandiose moments of the character’s bitterness and resentment. The result is a mixed bag for the actor; a performance which is both hammy and accomplished. As for the rest, Glen ably fills the “older British voice of reason” quota nicely, but the real surprise is Grainger, who skillfully brings out Louise’s hidden layers to the forefront in the most careful of ways.

My Cousin Rachel is the kind of film an audience member might not be sure whether or not they’ve liked until its final moments. The movie’s closing scenes infuse the film’s audience with a seemingly endless series of questions to not answer, but rather simply ponder. Was Rachel really evil? Was Philip delusional? Was there some other force orchestrating the fates of these two characters? It’s these questions, all of which remain in the psyche past the end credits, and Michell’s (at times decent) presentation of them, that makes My Cousin Rachel ultimately worth it. Du Maurier’s novel was previously made into a film in the 1950s with Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton in the central roles, which I admittedly haven’t seen. I’m tempted to seek this version out to see if it provided anymore clarification to the above questions; or if, in true Du Maurier fashion, they were just left to linger.

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