Editor Chloe Woods reviews Roger Michell’s adaptation of the gothic thriller.
The first film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel since 1952 is fortunate to be spared the judgement of its original author. Given her distinctive style and take on human nature, it’s hard to think but that Daphne du Maurier would have been disappointed with this by-the-numbers retelling. It’s not bad, exactly. Just insipid. All right, boring.
It has much in common with the better-known Rebecca: the Cornish coast, a house which almost serves as a character in its own right, and a possible murder mystery. The plot follows Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) after his life is thrown into turmoil by the death of his cousin and father-figure, Ambrose, following which Ambrose’s possibly-murdering wife shows up at the house and proceeds to make herself part of Philip’s life. This takes a while: the film’s opening is languid and includes the retelling of Philip’s childhood, much letter-reading and bouts of curiously sympathetic weather. The most notable thing to be said here is that I’ve rarely seen a film go to such lengths to make its lead so utterly dislikeable – a brute of a man who cannot and will not learn – which could be used to disturbing effect if it stood alone, but instead jars badly with the later hints that he’s legitimately ill. Does that excuse his behaviour? Render it moot? Should we be glad he’s got his comeuppance – at other people’s expense?
When Rachel (Rachel Weisz) finally shows up half an hour in, it feels as if the plot should kick into gear; instead, the film spins its wheels for much of the remaining runtime and dissipating the tension previously built up as Philip promptly forgets his suspicions and becomes infatuated with her. Here the weakness of the film’s perspective becomes apparent. The aim is clearly for ambiguity: is Rachel a monster, or is she innocent of the crimes attributed to her and – though somewhat more spendthrift and manipulative than most – simply an intelligent woman who has made hard decisions to survive in a man’s world? But we perceive Rachel through Philip’s eyes, and Philip’s eyes, from shortly after his meeting until near the end, are besotted, leaving the film to drag without any sense of the greater conflict at hand despite our rational awareness of it, and our ability to see – as Philip cannot – the possible guile in Rachel’s actions. The disjunct between the question of Rachel’s homicidal tendencies and Philip’s lovesick antics should be compelling, but in practice falls flat, perhaps simply because it lasts twice as long as it needs to.
The anticlimactic ending can be excused, at least – that’s familiar from du Maurier, though the film’s conclusion has been changed from the original. Your humble reviewer not having read the novel, I can’t say how faithful the adaptation is as a whole, but it gives a sense of falling into that familiar category of adapted works which rest their weight on the strength of their source material – or are scared to stray too far from it – and so import wholesale features which may work in one medium but not in another, while failing to do much else of interest. Rachel Weisz is the most memorable aspect of the cast, among a host of uninspired performances; Sam Claflin certainly does little to endear us to his leading man. There’s little to be said of the cinematography, use of sound and so on beyond competence. It does make a hearty attempt at visual storytelling in a couple of places, marking it above those adaptations which feel more like books shot on film than actual movies; and perhaps we don’t expect groundbreaking creativity from our workaday historical films. Though if we did they would be far more compelling.
It’s not a totally tragic waste of two hours, much as the film itself may be a tragedy depending on how you read it: and while that’s a respectable little brain-teaser to mull over, even as a mystery My Cousin Rachel doesn’t entirely succeed. But if you prefer your films to actually be, you know, engaging, you may want to give this one a miss.
My Cousin Rachel is in UK cinemas now. See the trailer below: