Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen
Director: Roger Michell
Running Time: 106 mins
Synopsis: Phillip (Claflin) is a young Englishman who worships his Cousin Ambrose. Upon learning of Ambrose’s sudden death he seeks revenge on his Cousin’s enigmatic wife Rachel (Weisz), whom he believes was responsible. Once they meet, his mood changes and he begins to fall into a mad obsession with her. Not realising that Rachel may be plotting against him.
Famed author Daphne Du Maurier may be known as a romantic novelist but her stories always contained darker themes below the surface, whether that be the troubling aspects of grief in Don’t Look Now or the bleak nihilistic grip of The Birds. This provides clear reasoning as to why the film adaptations of her work are generally visceral, troubling and complex cinema. Her novel My Cousin Rachel offers something a lot more salivating in the prospect of a movie version, its pertinent gender and sexual politics. Sadly director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) fails to get a firm grasp on these themes, lacking the required passion to elevate it above restrained handsomeness.
A hastily assembled montage introduces us to Ambrose and his cousin Phillip, a boy he chose to raise after the death of his parents. Abruptly rushed it fails to teach us just why these two had such a strong connection, at least not enough to justify why older Phillip should be so aggrieved upon learning of Ambrose’s death. You see Ambrose has moved to Italy, leaving Phillip in charge of his massive estate (yes another period film set within a gloriously extravagant mansion) and in turn married the enigmatic Rachel. Letters have been sent to Phillip claiming that she has been poisoning Ambrose. He takes these at face value, not realising that they could in fact be the delirious ramblings of a man suffering from a brain tumour. It is but one of many ambivalent turns that leave you questioning what is real or not.
Stubbornly refusing to believe that Rachel may not be responsible, Phillip decides to hunt her down. It is in this section where he becomes an almost insufferable lead. Sam Claflin has never been the most nuanced of actors, keen to rely on his exactingly posh line reading rather than showcasing any real depth. Throughout the film he is meant to represent the naivety and narrow mindedness of young men, and the movie, well notably Rachel, has fun running rings around him. In more capable hands Phillip could have been more sympathetic, but Claflin never realises the passion the character so desperately needs.
This is none more prevalent than in the arrival of Rachel. Despite searching for her she is the one to come to him, showing up in England to meet with her deceased husbands heir and potentially make a play for his inheritance. Still furious at Rachel, their first meeting unexpectedly awakens feelings of lust within Phillip, he almost immediately dropping this vengeful pursuit. It is a melodramatic plot turn that would’ve worked had the chemistry between the two of them been even halfway palpable. Her beauty and playful nature is meant to inspire instant attraction and desire, instead Claflin just seems confused.
In no way is this a slight on Rachel Weisz who delivers a complex performance as her namesake. One moment coming across flighty, emotionally childish and lovable. The next she is cold, distant and prone to bawling her eyes out. She remains frequently aloof, hard to predict and compelling to watch. The film and novel’s strongest aspect is in keeping her motivations mysterious. As events progress and Phillip develops an obsessive infatuation with her, we never quite know if she is genuinely using him or accidentally gracing his affections with misplaced care towards him. When events turn towards a more Gothic sensibility as Phillip becomes mysteriously ill, there is none too subtle hints that she may be the one poisoning as she did his dear Ambrose. Michell plays his hand a little too much here, with repeated scenes of Rachel serving tea as the camera glaringly observes the cup.
This is indicative of the entire film. Well shot, with handsome production design and elemental cinematography which handily represents events on screen. A character is in turmoil of course it is storming down with rain! Through all this there just is never any sense of urgency, of passion, of a willingness to push boundaries. Hindered in some respects by the safer 12A rating, this story needed the riskier confidence of say a Hitchcock or Nic Roeg (both of whom nailed their Du Marnier adaptations). One moment comes close to exploring sexual dynamics in an interesting way, Rachel using her body to placate Phillip then cruelly wiping herself down after he’s finished. It is a raw grown up moment in a film sorely in need of some.
The surrounding cast do solid work. Iain Glen giving good gravelly advice as a family friend. Holliday Grainger a warm consistent presence by Phillip’s side as the woman he spurns for his Rachel lust, loyal to him despite the unfair treatment she faces. They all add up to the genteel pleasantness of it all, but you long for fire and atmosphere. For a film so driven by the uncontrollable fervour of inescapable passion, it is conspicuously lacking any for itself.
Verdict: Staged handsomely and Weisz is terrific but the central chemistry flounders amidst a largely stately affair that never quite grasps its deeper themes.