‘My Cousin Rachel’ a gothic did she or didn’t she

My Cousin Rachel – 4 Stars
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glenn and Holliday Grainger

Short Take: A young man seeks vengeance on the woman he believes has murdered his guardian only to find himself besotted by her beguiling charm and helpless to resist her. Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel is a gothic did she or didn’t she.
REEL TAKE: My Cousin Rachel is a lusty retelling of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel by the same name. It’s a must-see for costume drama and romantic literature enthusiasts. And it has just enough grit to engage those who may not quite be the target audience or a fan of the genre. Those unfamiliar with the book or the 1952 film, may be surprised by the smoldering sexuality of the story or femme fatale suspense in a gothic period piece. This is melodrama with a dark side.
The story is narrated by Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), a young, 19th-century aristocrat in Cornwall bent on vengeance for the death of his guardian. Orphaned at a young age and raised by his cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin), Philip is unworldly and knows a very masculine life. When Ambrose is forced to move to Florence for health reasons, Philip is left alone to take care of the estate. Philip’s loneliness is compounded when Ambrose writes to tell him that he married a half-Italian half-English widow named Rachel (Rachel Weisz). His letters gush of her beauty, her goodness, and their love. But when the letters become less frequent and strike a decidedly different tone, Philip heads to Italy, arriving only after Ambrose has died.
After returning to Cornwall, Philip awaits the inevitable arrival of his cousin’s widow. Determined to avenge his cousin’s death and expose the woman as a murderous gold-digger, he finds himself completely besotted by the beguiling gentlewoman instead. From here on the story is a tangled web of emotions and intrigue.
Roger Michell, who directed a popular television version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion in 1995 and rose to fame with Notting Hill in 1999, takes writing and directing credits for My Cousin Rachel. He has created a sumptuous canvas. Every bit of this film is beautifully shot. The photography is alternately intimate and grand. It’s often sharp in in its point of focus yet soft, sometimes muddled around the edges, reflecting perhaps the murkiness of the story. Where [I think] Michell falters is in the emotional development of the characters, the kind of connection that makes mounting tensions sizzle and packs a wallop to the heart of its audience.
Sam Claflin, whose star is on the rise after roles in the Hunger Games franchise, last year’s Me Before You and most recently in Their Finest, delivers a solid, if slightly charmless, performance drawing on Philip’s brooding manliness and petulant boyishness. Holliday Grainger is terrific as Louise, Philip’s spurned love interest. Likewise, I wanted more of Iain Glenn as Louise’s father and Philip’s godfather, especially with all of the angst and melodrama swirling between our lead characters. However, the film truly belongs to Rachel Weisz. Her performance is so nuanced, with layer upon layer of the contradictory elements of her character. She also burns with the frustration of a woman trying to live life on her terms. And ultimately, she keeps the does she or doesn’t she, did she or didn’t she speculation alive, while caught between love and deception.
My Cousin Rachel is not as highly a substantive story as more classic period pieces, but it is a morally complex tale, and it keeps you guessing until the end. As I write this, it is playing at The Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville, though probably not for long. See it while you can.

MY COUSIN RACHEL, Olivia de Havilland, Richard Burton, Audrey Dalton, 1952, TM and copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved

Side Note!
This is the second time My Cousin Rachel has been adapted for film. The first was by Henry Koster (My Man Godfrey, Harvey, etc.) in 1952, starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton (who received his first Oscar nomination for the film). The latest adaptation is similar to that telling, but the differences are interesting. The original is made palatable for 1950’s audiences with a more sanitized type of moral complexity. It’s classic melodrama, made suspenseful due to the art of lighting and photography. Compared to Michell’s version it’s complete studio artifice, but it works. Maybe we’re more willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to older films, but there’s also worth to leaving some things to the imagination and keeping it simple to tell a story. The 1952 version of My Cousin Rachel is available on DVD.

Did you Know?
Several of Daphne Du Maurier’s best-selling novels have been adapted for the silver screen. The master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, was a big fan. The first was Jamaica Inn (1937) with Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton, the second was the Academy Award-winning Rebecca (1940) starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and the third was a little film called The Birds (1963), starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor.

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3 thoughts on “‘My Cousin Rachel’ a gothic did she or didn’t she

  • June 21, 2017 at 9:54 am
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    You are spot on with your analysis of the film. Quick note-you might want to correct Jane “Austin” to “Austen.”

    • June 21, 2017 at 10:42 am
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      Thanks for writing about this film. I took my pre-teen and teenage daughters to see it and they all felt a little lost the entire time. At first, I attributed this to their ages but as I reflect on it, I think it definitely helps to have a prior understanding of the story.

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