MY COUSIN RACHEL spins a black widow’s sticky web
When the film adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s works of Gothic fiction are discussed, My Cousin Rachel is rarely the first to be mentioned, that honor usually goes to Rebecca and The Birds. It’s a disservice, though, since the story is full of possibility that could be transferred to the screen in all its paranoid, double-guessing, self-doubting, madness-tinged glory. This second film adaptation has some genuinely excellent moments capturing those elements, but in trying to appeal to modern audiences, loses some of the subtlety that made the source material so great.
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, Their Finest (2016), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)) was an orphan adopted by his older cousin, Ambrose. When Ambrose’s ill health eventually results in him being bundled off to the warmer climate of Florence, Philip takes over the management of their Cornwall estate. He faithfully shares each of Ambrose’s letters with friend (and family attorney) Nick Kendall and his daughter, Louise. Soon the letters report the news that Ambrose has met a family cousin, Rachel…then that he has fallen in love with and married her. The happy tone begins to deteriorate in subsequent letters as Ambrose’s health suddenly declines again and, even more troubling, that Rachel seems to be keeping him a virtual prisoner. One final letter includes a hidden plea for help, prompting Philip to depart immediately for Italy, only to arrive to the news that Ambrose had just died of a brain tumor. The now-widowed Rachel has also mysteriously disappeared.
Philip returns to England, vowing revenge on the woman he believes murdered his beloved cousin. When he receives word that Rachel too has come to England, he immediately plans to inflict all the torment his cousin went through upon his widow, going so far as to install her into a previously-abandoned suite and making sure he is pointedly absent when she arrives.
The demon-witch that he’s built up in his mind, however, turns out to be a modest, kind and humble woman, one who appears to truly mourn her husband’s passing. Needless to say, Philip is taken aback and his plans of revenge crumble as he (along with the estate’s staff and local families and friends) fall immediately under Rachel’s charm. Philip is more than just charmed; he quickly falls in love with her, a frenzied love that seems to exhibit many symptoms of madness.
For her part, Rachel (Rachel Weisz, Denial(2016), The Light Between Oceans (2016)) does everything right as Philip’s obsession deepens. She produces an unsigned will showing that Ambrose intended to leave everything to her, prompting Philip to immediately sign over the estate against strong advice and warnings from Nick Kendall. When Philip dives into the vault to shower Rachel with family jewels, Kendall points out that he has no legal right to do so and Rachel immediately agrees, handing the jewelry back over. The entire first part of the movie shows Rachel providing the quiet, proper counterpoint to Philip’s increasingly feverish attempts to woo her. It’s not until Philip officially inherits the estate upon his twenty-fifth birthday that the tone changes.
As Rachel and Philip’s relationship transitions to a sexual one, we start doubting her actions and motives. She constantly presses him to drink cup after cup of an Italian tea that she brews specially for him. When Philip presents a document signing the estate over to her, she secretly visits Nick Kendall to make sure she understood every facet of what circumstances would keep the estate in her name. Then she abruptly pulls back from Philip’s love-sick declarations and proposals immediately after finding out that she could only retain the property so long as she remained Ambrose’s widow. By the time Philip falls ill with symptoms that mirror those Ambrose had written about, the audience (and Philip) are sure that Rachel is a stone-cold black widow actively planning her next move.
My Cousin Rachel does a nice but not particularly brilliant job of crafting the Gothic fiction into film form. Rachel Weisz is the standout: her depiction of Rachel Ashley is utterly on-note at every turn. She plays the role brilliantly throughout the widow’s multiple changes in mood, affect and reaction. Claflin isn’t quite as successful as Philip: yes, the character is supposed to be young, sheltered, passionate and fairly immature, but he comes across as so stupidly brash and foolish that it’s hard to maintain any sympathy for him. Most unforgivably, Philip’s final actions and the film’s resolution showing him essentially shrugging off a horrifying thing that he very mindfully chose to do. Had the actor portraying Philip been as absorbing as what Weisz brought to Rachel, this film would have been a much better representation of the mystery, madness and romantic horror that characterizes Gothic fiction at its best.