Film - My Cousin Rachel

Did she or didn't she? Yes, Ren Zelen did watch My Cousin Rachel...

Director: Roger Michell
Writers: Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Roger Michell (adaptation)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Andrew Havill, Vicki Pepperdine

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a sucker for anything approaching the Gothic, and the latest version of My Cousin Rachel, adapted from the 1951 novel by Daphne Du Maurier and directed by Roger Michell, certainly looks the part.

Filmed in the crumbling mansion inherited by TV quizmaster Bamber Gascoigne, moodily lit, often by candlelight, it proves to be another atmospheric psychological drama inspired by the hugely popular, yet critically underrated Du Maurier. In a Q&A following the screening of the film, director Michell admitted that in his adaptation he had envisioned the two main characters in a more modern way.

Sam Claflin plays Philip, the novel’s unreliable narrator. Claflin’s Philip is a moody man-child, satisfied with a bachelor life among his dogs and horses in a dusty man-cave, confessing a dislike of books and ‘clever-talk’. Dismissive of women, it is a mystery as to why the pert and pretty Louise (Holliday Grainger), daughter of guardian and family lawyer Mr Kendall (Iain Glen), is so obviously in love with him.

Admittedly, a girl didn’t have much in the way of romantic options outside her small local circle in those days, which might go a long way to explaining the allure and fascination of the unconventional and enigmatic Cousin Rachel when she finally makes an appearance in their small community.

Philip’s beloved adopted father, Ambrose, had met and married Rachel during a convalescence in Italy after a debilitating illness. The marriage, seemingly idyllic at first, appears from Ambrose’s letters, to degenerate into mistrust and suspicion – but are Ambrose’s fears grounded in reality, or merely delusions produced by the brain tumour that apparently kills him?

In a spasm of rage, Philip takes his adopted father’s word as truth and swears vengeance on the woman that caused his demise. Yet the post-mortem corroborates the brain tumour and there is no provision for Rachel in Ambrose’s will. Philip still stands to inherit everything.

When Philip hears of widow Rachel’s intention to visit him, he stays away in a fit of petulance, hoping to outmanoeuvre her in a childish attempt at one-upmanship. The plan backfires and, restless with curiosity, he instead has to pay his respects to her late at night after she retires to her room.

All thoughts of vengeance fly from his head after only one meeting with the charming, kindly, and playful woman Rachel seems to be. In the stuffy and mundane environs of his rural sphere, Rachel is exotic, assured, witty and exciting. Against all his expectations, Philip falls, and falls hard.

Claflin has his work cut out in making us feel sympathy for Philip, who is pretty much the sole engineer of his own misfortunes, if they can be called such. He displays a whole bunch of neurotic hang-ups that render him pig-headed and wildly impulsive. He stays out in downpours and becomes feverish and hallucinatory, throwing doubt on our growing suspicions that Rachel’s herbal tea concoctions may contain something less than healthy.

Weisz is a perfect choice for the eponymous character – not all actresses can pull off such a subtle mix of emotions – charm, openness, wit, kindliness, married to enigmatic sensuality and oblique motivations, keeping alive the possibility that she may not be what we presume or expect. Weisz is adept at smiling ambiguity, allowing us to imagine both motive and innocence in her dark eyes, convincingly pleading for the benefit of the doubt. It’s a tremendous lead performance – assured, measured and precise throughout.

Michell stresses that the envisioned Rachel’s character as a modern woman with modern sensibilities, dropped, as if from space, into the constricting social customs of the 19th century. Weisz carries the film by sheer charisma, and persuades you that Rachel may not be unwise to wish to be free of the ties of masculine idealization and possession.

My Cousin Rachel features a lush score from Rael Jones and truly atmospheric lighting and camerawork. Cinematographer Mike Eley’s camera plays with the characters, sometimes opting for handheld in order to undermine the conventional visual notions of Gothic costume drama. His camera is sometimes like a witness, sometimes like an interrogator. It often rests hesitantly on Weisz, persisting in reminding us of the vexing question which opens the film – ‘Did she, or didn’t she?’

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2017 All rights reserved.

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Images - IMDb
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