Film Review: “My Cousin Rachel” Mesmerizes and Bores, in Almost Equal Measure

Film poster: “My Cousin Rachel”

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017) 2½ stars out of 4.

As a big fan of writer Daphne du Maurier, I find it odd that I often find gothic screen romances less than compelling, since that is one of the literary genres in which she trafficked. Perhaps I merely find the emotionally overwrought drama more palatable on the page, where my own imagination can supply the appropriate visuals. Then again, it could be that I prefer these kinds of stories with a supernatural edge, where the underlying tensions could be more than the product of mere heartbreak and fever. My favorite works of Du Maurier – her short stories “The Birds” (adapted by Alfred Hitchcock) and “Don’t Look Now” (adapted by Nicholas Roeg) – mix the worlds of mystery and fantasy in an unsettling combination. I haven’t yet read her novel My Cousin Rachel, so can only comment on this new cinematic adaptation of it from Roger Michell (Le Week-End), which comes 65 years after its the first version. A simultaneously disquieting and amusing deconstruction of the male sexual gaze, the film succeeds on some levels, even if its main character is ultimately too much of a bore to hold our interest for long.

Fortunately, there is the marvelous Rachel Weisz (The Lobster), as the titular Rachel, to grab our attention while poor Sam Claflin (Their Finest) mopes his way through the thankless role of a callow young man who falls under her spell. To be fair to Claflin, he is an engaging performer with a lot of natural charisma; it’s just hard to make Philip, the aimless landowner he incarnates with morose conviction, an appealing screen presence. The fact that therein lies the point of the exercise makes it no more captivating. At least in Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 bloody mess of a gothic movie, Crimson Peak, with the genders reversed (in terms of who was manipulating whom), the central role, incarnated by Mia Wasikowska, was a strong one. Here, Philip mostly simpers. Which, given the presumptuousness of his desire, is not inappropriate. It’s just also not that interesting to watch.

Sam Claflin as “Philip” and Rachel Weisz as “Rachel Ashley” in MY COUSIN RACHEL. Photo by Nicola Dove. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Philip is orphaned when young, and adopted by a wealthy uncle, whom he closely resembles (Claflin plays both roles) and who makes him his sole heir. When Philip is almost 25, the age at which he will officially become his own man, his uncle passes away while taking a cure in Florence, Italy, but not before sending increasingly disturbed letters to his ward about his new bride, Rachel ­– also his cousin – whom he accuses of poisoning him. Philip vows revenge, but when Rachel arrives in England, the inexperienced youth finds himself entranced by her beauty, completely forgetting his slowly burgeoning romance with his neighbor Louise (Holliday Grainger, The Finest Hours), daughter of his godfather, and setting aside all thoughts of retribution. In fact, in a surprising turn of events, he rather quickly becomes infatuated with Rachel, giving over time and fortune for her enjoyment. But, to paraphrase Philip’s opening voiceover, does she or doesn’t she return the affection? Is she or isn’t she genuine? And what if she isn’t? The time and place is the 19th century in England, after all, and what other options does a woman of wit and wisdom have to take care of herself in a world dominated by men? More power to her.

Indeed, given the not-so-latent current of misogyny that runs in Philip’s family, if Rachel does turn out to be a reverse bluebeard, marrying and killing a succession of husbands, it would certainly serve Philip right, especially given the callous manner in which he discards Louise (Grainger is marvelous as the spurned, but steadfast, friend). That’s all to the good of the story. Unfortunately, for this viewer, there is too much passive brooding – the danger of the gothic genre – which becomes dreary after a while: we need more Weisz (and Grainger!), less Claflin. Still, Michell knows his way around a camera, and has a fine sense of location, shooting visually evocative scenes on the cliffs of Cornwall. The entire affair needs a little more energy, however, to raise it above the obviousness of its conceit. Though the persona, good or bad, of cousin Rachel may possibly be a construct of Philip’s wild ravings, the narrative structure of the film need not feel so determined. If you have a taste for this kind of story, then you’ll most likely savor what I find tiresome. We can all agree, however, that Rachel – Weisz, that is – is every bit as mesmerizing as she is meant to be.

Rachel Weisz as “Rachel Ashley” in MY COUSIN RACHEL. Photo by Nicola Dove. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice."
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