DIR/WRI: Roger Michell • PRO: Kevin Loader • DOP: Mike Eley • ED: Kristina Hetherington • DES: Alice Normington • MUS: Rael Jones • CAST: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Holliday Grainger
The second big-screen outing for Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, My Cousin Rachel is a solid, faithful adaptation that would have played well on a Sunday afternoon at any point over the past six decades. In some ways, the mere existence of a film like this is cause for celebration – a resolutely old-fashioned entertainment somehow emerging in a Summer crowded with franchise landfill. That being said, there’s something rather square about Roger Michell’s adaptation that left this correspondent’s bodice largely unripped. Are descents into infatuation and jealousy supposed to feel so… cosy?
The story is more or less unchanged from Henry Koster’s underrated 1952 adaptation, which starred Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton. Here, the leads are taken by Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin as, respectively, the mysterious Rachel and the hot-headed Philip, cousin of Rachel’s ill-fated husband. Philip’s suspicions are naturally aroused when his beloved cousin ends up six feet under with undue swiftness following his marriage to the suspiciously continental Rachel – although his plans for revenge are complicated when Rachel takes up residence at the family estate in Cornwall, inadvertently stirring his (rather adolescent) passions. But just how inadvertent is Rachel’s seduction of her ‘cousin’? And is she, as she says, a woman ‘trying to make her own way in the world’, or, as Philip initially believes, a cold-hearted murderess. Like Du Maurier’s novel, the film draws out this ambiguity for its duration before arriving at a conclusion that has becomes justifiably famous for… Well, you’ll have to see.
Visually, it’s put over with just enough flair to separate it from high quality television – and this isn’t necessarily a handicap. As Romantic costume pieces go, Michell’s film is never as immersive as Jane Campion’s Bright Star (although it does quote visually from that film in a handsome shot involving a field of bluebells); at the same time, it’s never as distractingly plasticky as Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (with which it shares certain Gothic trappings, if not its outright supernatural slant). The middle-ground is very much the watchword here, the better to foreground the actors – an approach very typical of Michell, who can usually be relied upon to deliver a sympathetic showcase for his performers.
In that respect, the main attraction is clearly Weisz. Always a versatile actress, she doesn’t carry the assumption of transparency that made De Havilland an inspired choice for the part, but she plays ambiguity well, and Rachel falls neatly between the twin poles of her recent work. Weisz can conjure a sense of natural inscrutability, as she did in Joshua Marston’s little-seen Complete Unknown last year; but she also has a fine-tuned, and sadly under-exploited, facility for camp, heretofore relegated to Sam Raimi’s bloated Oz: The Great and Powerful. As Rachel, she plays both angles – unknowable reserve, and swishy black-veiled villainess. What’s more, she seems to be enjoying herself, and the feeling translates.
Of course, the real villain of My Cousin Rachel might not be Rachel at all, but the tortured suspicions of her wooer/nemesis Philip. In that sense, Du Maurier’s novel might be read as a treatise on the poisonous anger of masculine entitlement thwarted by feminine self-possession: the man expects that the woman reveal herself completely to him, for no reason other than that is it his prerogative to know, and hers to be known. Sam Claflin is clearly never going to rival Richard Burton for curdled virility, but he’s serviceable in the part. He’s a rather blunt actor, which can be a liability in its own right, but which actually plays well off Weisz’s hints and withholding.
As is usual for this kind of film, the supporting cast keeps some fine British character actors busy between meatier television commitments. Holliday Grainger is appealing as Philip’s own lovelorn admirer, Louise, while Simon Russell Beale and Tim Barlow make characteristic hay with smaller parts as family lawyer and faithful retainer, respectively.
12A (See IFCO for details)
My Cousin Rachel is released 9th June 2017