Film of the week: My Cousin Rachel, a gothic conjugal intrigue

Rachel Weisz’s is she/isn’t she killer bride bewitches this sleek Daphne du Maurier adaptation.

Lisa Mullen
Updated:

from our July 2017 issue

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Roger Michell brings a glossy, high-end sheen to Daphne du Maurier’s neurotic tale of lust and paranoia, with a super-subtle Rachel Weisz as the ambiguous femme fatale who just might be a murderer.

The story hinges on the relationship between Rachel and her cousin Philip (Sam Claflin), who has to decide whether or not she can be trusted when she arrives, penniless, at his door. She had met and married Philip’s elderly guardian Ambrose (also a cousin) in Italy, but he died without naming her in his will, and now she must throw herself on Philip’s charity.

Philip has good reason to be wary: Ambrose’s romance with this exotic creature had been a whirlwind affair that, according to his letters home, had rapidly turned sour. A hidden note has turned up in which Ambrose explicitly accuses Rachel of poisoning him. But the old man supposedly died of a brain tumour, so was his mind disturbed? On the other hand, Rachel won’t be parted from her little suitcase full of mysterious herbs, from which she concocts strange, foul-tasting teas…

Claflin matches Weisz’s preternatural poise with a well-judged turn as the barely adult Philip, full of cocky certainty at the beginning, but soon dangling soppily on a string twitched by the witchy Rachel. She seems to understand well enough which part of his anatomy is in control of the situation, but is she using her feminine charms cynically, or is she desperately ad-libbing in order to gain some measure of autonomy in a man’s world stacked against her?

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

This conundrum is at the heart of the film, and it takes a hand as steady as Michell’s (not to mention the plotting genius of du Maurier) to ensure that the persistent ambiguity doesn’t collapse into narrative chaos. Yet while the tension twangs away nicely, the film never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions. The troublingly incestuous tangle of relationships – Ambrose, Philip and Rachel are all cousins, after all, while Rachel is Philip’s quasi-stepmother as well as his lust-object – is never really examined. Had it been, the film might have achieved the kind of stomach-churning claustrophobia that makes Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) such a white-knuckle ride.

But of course it’s unfair to compare anyone to Hitchcock. As it is, Michell chooses to flip visually from gloom to sunlight as Philip and Rachel perform their emotional tug of war, and he often frames the overwrought goings-on through windows and doorways, pulling back to add perspective after crucial close-ups. This gives extra weight to the point of view of baffled outsiders Nick Kendall (Iain Glen, delightfully exasperated) and his daughter Louise (a scene-stealing minor role for Holliday Grainger), who act as Philip’s friends and advisers but may have their own axes to grind.

Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama.

 

  • Sight & Sound: the July 2017 issue

    Sight & Sound: the July 2017 issue

    Edgar Wright talks Baby Driver with Mark Kermode, plus the best of Cannes, Bong Joonho’s Okja, Philippe Garrel and 50 years of queer British...

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