Film Reviews

My Cousin Rachel

Published June 14, 2017
Young Philip Ashley explores the grassy paddocks of Cornwall with his cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier (1907-89) is one of those writers destined to be forever suspended between literature and pulp fiction. Her work has echoes of the great Victorian novelists but also a tinge of Gothic horror. She may not have beeen deep but she knew how to tell a fabulous, gloomy story.
It’s the pulp aspect of Du Maurier’s work that has been seized upon by filmmakers, with conspicuously artistic results. Her most famous acolyte was Alfred Hitchcock, who gave us a bowdlerised Jamaica Inn (1939); Rebecca (1940) – which turned into a battle with producer, David O. Selznick; and The Birds (1963).
The other memorable Du Maurier adaptation is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a movie that still gets people talking at parties. This was allegedly the only film of her work, apart from Rebecca, that Du Maurier enjoyed.
She detested an overheated 1952 version of her novel, My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster. The only real selling point was the combination of Olivia de Havilland (101 this year!), and Richard Burton at his most histrionic.
Roger Michell turns down the heat by several notches in his new version of My Cousin Rachel, featuring Rachel Weisz in the enigmatic title role, and Sam Claflin, as the impressionable younger relative and suitor.
If this already sounds incestuous it’s only one ripple of the psycho-sexual undercurrents running through the story. Where Koster and his scriptwriter, Nunnally Johnson, treated the tale as a melodrama, Michell takes his time establishing atmosphere and background, although the dark forces of the libido still loom large.
The first serious relationship of the film is between young Philip Ashley and his older cousin, Ambrose Ashley, the owner of a prosperous estate in Cornwall. Philip is an orphan, and Ambrose – his guardian – a combination of friend, father and brother to him. Philip idolises Ambrose, and having no taste for city life, for books or witty conversation, looks forward to the day when he may settle permanently on the land.
Before that day arrives Ambrose suffers health problems and leaves for the sunnier climes of Florence. When Philip returns to the property after having completed his education, he can only communicate with Ambrose through letters. In this way he learns that Ambrose has met up with another cousin, an Anglo-Italian woman named Rachel. The friendship becomes a romance, and the two get married.
From this point it’s all bad news. Ambrose grows seriously ill and his letters to Philip begin to convey his anxieties about Rachel. He feels she is trying to do away with him, and implores Philip to come quickly to Italy.
When Philip arrives he is met by the smarmy lawyer, Rinaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), who informs him that Ambrose has died from a brain tumour, while Rachel is nowhere to be found. He becomes possessed by righteous anger, vowing revenge on the sinister female.
The first surprise for Philip is that Rachel makes no claim whatsoever on Ambrose’s estate, leaving him as sole heir. The bigger shock is when she arrives unexpectedly for a visit, and the violent hatred he felt for her as an abstraction is undone by her extraordinary charm. Soon Philip has fallen for his older cousin and starts making irrational, lovesick decisions.
Although it had always been assumed that Philip would marry Louise (Holliday Grainger), the pretty, level-headed daughter of his godfather, Nick Kent (Iain Glen), he rapidly succumbs to Rachel’s spell. Suddenly Louise seems like dull fare alongside the allure of the older woman.
To say more would be to spoil the story, which charts Philip’s descent into a state of amour fou, and the ambiguous way in which Rachel responds to his protestations. It’s a first class performance from Weisz, playing a diffident seductress with a quantity of skeletons in the closet. Is she innocent or guilty of Ambrose’s death? What sort of game is she playing?
Sam Clafllin is less convincing as Philip, often seeming too crude and naïve to be credible. Pig-headed, selfish and foolish he quickly forfeits the viewer’s sympathies. As for the Kents, they are the embodiment of good, British common sense, a quality that has never appealed to movie-goers.
Roger Michell, who had his greatest success with the feelgood comedy, Notting Hill (1999), is sharp enough to grasp the unspoken aspects of the story but too conservative to push the boundaries. He toys with the idea that Philip’s feelings for Ambrose were that of a lover rather than son. He makes us wonder whether Philip’s preference for a rigorously masculine lifestyle conceals a lack of interest in women, with Rachel as his ultimate Oedipal passion.
Sex percolates everywhere through this movie – through Rachel’s shady past spent in Italy; Philip’s naivete and obsession; even Louise’s prim and proper forebearance, as she watches her intended throw himself at another woman – yet somehow we’ve ended up with a PG rating.
One wonders what might have happened had it been Pedro Almodóvar sitting in the director’s chair.

My Cousin Rachel
Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Roger Michell, after a novel by Daphne du Maurier
Starring Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen, Pierfrancesco Favino, Poppy Lee Friar
UK/USA, rated PG, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 June, 2017