A Tale of Two Rachels: Comparing the 1952 and 2017 Versions of ‘My Cousin Rachel’

A Tale of Two Rachels: Comparing the 1952 and 2017 Versions of My Cousin Rachel

by Chip Kaufmann.

The Hendersonville Film Society recently screened the restored 1952 version of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. As it coincided with the release of the 2017 version, it gave me the ideal opportunity to make a comparison of the two and expand on what my colleague Michelle Keenan said in her review. I saw the two versions within days of each other, so both are still fresh in my mind.

Since Michelle has thoroughly covered the new version in her review, I will give some background on the 1952 version. I first saw it back in 1962 when I was 10 years old. This was part of the newly launched Saturday Night at the Movies where NBC and Twentieth Century-Fox cut a deal to show quality prints of major TCF films with limited commercials. How to Marry A Millionaire was the first and My Cousin Rachel was the second.

Although I obviously didn’t comprehend the adult complexities of the story at 10, I was struck by the brooding atmosphere, the gorgeous B&W photography and the personas of Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. I had yet to see (or read) Rebecca or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights so that this was my first exposure to Gothic Romance and I loved it especially Olivia’s face and Burton’s voice.  As Michelle points out, the original is completely a product of the old Hollywood. Soundstage bound yet through its use of photography, editing and music it manages to create a powerful atmosphere and a believable setting.

This brings me to the 2017 version. Trying to compare the two is really like comparing apples to oranges. The new version eschews Gothic atmosphere to concentrate on gorgeous photography which is what you would expect from a color film. It very much resembles a Merchant-Ivory or BBC Masterpiece production and is geared to appeal to that core audience. While this natural look doesn’t detract from the performances of the two leads, it fails to enhance them as the Gothic look did in the 1952 version.

Rachel Weisz is a capable actress and is a visually striking Rachel, but she downplays the gravitas of the character or at least that’s how writer-director Roger Michell has her play it. This version is more slanted toward Rachel’s point-of-view rather than Philip’s which is different from the 1952 version. I like Sam Claflin, and he has given some very good performances, but he’s no Richard Burton. He has neither the voice nor the inner intensity to portray Philip’s emotional swing from blind hatred to unquestioning love.

An interesting fact I noted is that the running time of the two versions is only a few minutes apart. With today’s lengthy post credits, that means Michell has less time to tell the story. Although shorter, the newer version seems longer and that’s a problem with pacing which must be laid at the feet of the director. The lack of dramatic tension must be laid at the foot of the screenwriter who is also the director. Michell does provide a more highly dramatic ending than either the book or the first film.

The 1952 director Henry Koster, a studio hack to quote one former Asheville reviewer, was a company man who used all the studio resources at his disposal to create audience favorites like Harvey, The Bishop’s Wife, and The Robe. If that’s a hack, then we need more of them. All movies are a collaborative effort, but it seems that older movies concentrated more on story and character rather than what the technical crew could accomplish.

Part of my preference for the original version no doubt relates to my childhood memories of it, but it also has to do with the fact that I associate Daphne Du Maurier with Rebecca rather than The Birds. Gothic romance just seems better suited to B&W than to color IMO. However, the new version of My Cousin Rachel is definitely worth seeing and today’s younger audiences will probably enjoy it more. However since the restored 1952 version is available on DVD (avoid online public domain copies or take that into account when viewing), you should check it out if the opportunity presents itself. There is also a 4 hour 1983 made-for-TV version with Geraldine Chaplin. The less said about it the better.

FYI. Olivia de Havilland will turn 101 on July 1st. She currently resides in Paris.