UK Release Date: 9th June 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Roger Michell
Writer: Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen, Poppy Lee Friar, Andrew Knott
Synopsis: The spoiled heir to a British estate finds his world shaken up when his uncle’s widow returns to the huge country house and he is unsure whether she’s a grieving wife or a murderer looking for her next victim.
The British period drama has already created one unnerving femme fatale this year with Lady Macbeth, casting off the shackles of corsets and curtsies to craft a compelling woman with a dark edge. That idea has come around again just a few months later with My Cousin Rachel, which adapts a novel from mystery writer Daphne du Maurier, who also provided the subject matter for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Rebecca. It’s a deeply ambiguous and enigmatic – but ultimately rather frustrating – thriller, with a central performance from Rachel Weisz that is bizarre, inscrutable and impossible to read.
Philip (Sam Claflin) is saddened to learn of the death of his cousin, who raised him before emigrating to Italy. A series of letters he sent prior to his death tell the story of an illness and imply that it may be connected to his wife Rachel (Weisz). Rachel decides to come to England, where she moves into Philip’s home. Despite his initial hostility and the warnings of friend Louise (Holliday Grainger), Philip quickly becomes smitten with Rachel. At the same time, he too begins to fall ill and suspicion once again lands upon Rachel and her bizarre collection of herbal teas, which she seems determined to serve often.
Thanks to the unique directorial control of Roger Michell, My Cousin Rachel is a film that really casts a spell on the audience. It’s a candlelit mystery with more than a touch of Gothic inflection and ambiguity lurking in every shadowy corner of its cavernous manor setting. Michell’s adaptation of Du Maurier’s text maintains all of its enigma and this is conveyed elegantly by the stately pace of the movie, which builds gently as if to a shocking conclusion. Unfortunately, there’s never a strong pay-off to the mystery and the ambiguity feels deflating after such patient groundwork has been laid.
The film is helped, though, by strong performances from its two stars. Claflin’s Philip is an obnoxious misogynist who has grown up in a world almost entirely free of women, perturbed by Rachel’s presence and oblivious to the clear love offered to him by a firmly friend-zoned Holliday Grainger. There’s a complexity to how Claflin plays the character, torn between his suspicion and loathing for Rachel and the unfamiliar awakening of his sexuality, which culminates in him positioning himself completely under his cousin’s thumb. When other characters suggest he is being controlled by Rachel, he resists. Indeed, he is entirely complicit in his own manipulation.
Rachel Weisz gets the meatier and more complex role as the title character. She’s completely unreadable in the role, which bolsters the ambiguity surrounding her. We are utterly in the dark as to whether she’s a murderous poisoner or merely a tea enthusiast. Weisz has stated in interviews that she personally made a decision as to her character’s guilt and that feeds into a confident turn. We are one step behind Weisz and therefore caught up in a performance that forces the audience to change its loyalties from scene to scene. My Cousin Rachel gets the lion’s share of its complexity from Weisz and, compared to Claflin’s hulking, toxic masculinity, her more unconventional femininity makes for an interesting role.
For all of its strong performances and mysterious direction, there’s something rather unsatisfying about the way My Cousin Rachel comes to an end. It’s all build-up and no crescendo. Michell frames the film as a classic period tale, with abundant self-aware clichés to reflect that – in one scene, a necklace of pearls tumbles down a staircase in slow motion. All of that cliché cries out for a similarly ripe pay-off, rather than the note of rather sombre mystery we get here. It’s a finale more befitting of a novel than a big screen story and one that leaves the credits rolling over a sense of dramatic disappointment after an otherwise engrossing tale.
Pop or Poop?
My Cousin Rachel is an intriguing period mystery, put together with real reverence and craft by Roger Michell. It is equally performed with a real sense of enigma by Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz, with the latter embodying a woman who is both object of affection and femme fatale.
When the credits roll, there’s a sense that we may be missing a final chapter but, even devoid of a dramatic climax, this is a film that seduces and enthralls for much of its running time.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.