Published Jun 15, 2017Romantic drama My Cousin Rachel is a curious choice for a summer release, when lightweight comedies and action movies reign supreme at the box office. A PG-13 tale of love and paranoia adapted from a novel set in period England? Not exactly a draw to get most folks off the beach. Marketing for the film hawks a slow-burning power play between a man and a woman who are unable to ascertain if the other's motives are romantic or deadly — Jane Eyre meets Gone Girl. In reality, My Cousin Rachel is less straightforward than that, but its complexity serves more to frustrate than to titillate.
Sam Claflin (of the Hunger Games franchise) plays the eligible Phillip Ashley, a grown orphan raised in isolated luxury by his beloved cousin Ambrose — who has lately left Phillip to travel to Italy for his health. Letters reach England revealing Ambrose's sudden marriage to Rachel, another cousin of his living in Florence (nuptials between relatives is classier when everyone has British accents). The tone of his letters becomes paranoid, calling Rachel his "torment" and blaming her for his physical decay.
Phillip suspiciously travels to Italy only to find Ambrose dead, and his widow long gone. It isn't long before Rachel herself (played by Rachel Weisz) shows up at Phillip's door in England, rapidly transforming his mistrust into puppy love with her gentle wiles and modest mourning garb. Is she a Black Widow or an innocent English Rose? The path to resolving that question drives Phillip — and the audience, honestly — just a little bit mad.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Enduring Love) adapted My Cousin Rachel from a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, the author who provided source material for some of Alfred Hitchcock's best films (The Birds and Rebecca). With that horror pedigree, I anticipated some moments of delicious Hitchcockian dread to creep in. These moments occur, but rather than creep, they practically waddle in after being announced by a butler. Michell is heavy-handed with his misdirection and symbolism (white virginal pearls tumble down stairs in slow-motion, egad) and refuses to relax his pace for even a moment to allow the viewer to stew in the implications of Rachel's actions.
Michell can, however, claim some credit in his casting choice of Rachel Weisz. Throwing off the usual trappings of a femme fatale, Weisz's Rachel is affectionate, funny and self-possessed, politely pushing away the advances of Phillip like a kind teacher embarrassed by her pupil's hormones — and then pulling him back in. Free from the societal restrictions that du Maurier faced in her lifetime, Mitchell and Weisz enhance the feminist subtext of the novel by highlighting Rachel's desire for autonomy; she refuses to submit to Phillip, and she is not ashamed of her sexuality.
Sam Claflin's performance is less entrancing. From the first moments of his opening narration it's apparent that Claflin's interpretation of Phillip is part Holden Caulfield, part Heathcliff — and listening to his tortured internal monologue quickly wears thin. He never really engages with Weisz, who as an actress regularly issues challenges to her co-stars with nothing more than a look. Those provocations fall flat here; there's just no chemistry between the two.
The central mystery of the film revolves around Rachel's innocence: Did she kill Ambrose? Is it her intention to kill Phillip with the mysterious teas he so trustingly (read: stupidly) takes from her? Weisz herself revealed in an interview that not even the director was privy to that information, trusting his leading lady to choose an interpretation of the character so that he might more successfully depict the paranoia of Phillip.
This is an interesting technique, the downside being that the audience must remain in the limited first-person perspective of the annoying hero. Just like him, we long for the intoxicating company of Rachel.