MY COUSIN RACHEL REVIEW
WHEN it comes to dangerous romances, director Roger Michell is something of an old hand.
Venus (2006), for which the late Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar, told the story of an elderly English actor who forms an unlikely friendship with his mate’s grand-niece.
In The Mother (2003), Daniel Craig engages in a passionate sexual relationship with a woman twice his age (she also happens to be his girlfriend’s mother.)
Michell’s adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel My Cousin Rachel, by comparison, feels positively tame.
Perhaps that’s because the English filmmaker is scrupulously even-handed in relation to his leading lady.
While this approach supports the narrative enigma of the title character — maligned widow/ manipulative monster, the pendulum swings back and forth — it undercuts the gothic (melo)drama of the piece.
Rachel Weisz (Craig’s missus) is well cast in the title role.
Independent, mature, cosmopolitan … Cousin Rachel turns the provincial Cornish estate of her late husband Ambrose Ashley (Sam Claflin) upside down when she announces her impending visit.
Like Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), in the recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s L ove & Friendship, Rachel’s reputation precedes her. (Unlikely Lady Susan, Rachel’s reputation might not actually be deserved. But both are portrayed as proto-feminists, shaped and possibly stunted by the patriarchal laws of their time).
Ambrose’s orphaned charge, Phillip Ashley (also played by Sam Claflin), has formed his extremely ill opinion of Cousin Rachel based on a couple of barely-legible letters penned by his ailing guardian, who meets and marries Rachel while convalescing in Italy.
Ambrose’s paranoid scrawlings represent a dramatic shift in tone from the euphoria of his early correspondence in which he is clearly besotted by the same woman.
Phillip’s guardian (Iain Glen) suggests a brain tumour as an explanation and the death certificate confirms that diagnosis.
But Phillip is convinced that Rachel is to blame — until he meets her.
Over time, she earns first his trust, and then his devotion.
When he comes of age, Phillip decides to right legal and moral wrongs, bequeathing Ambrose’s estate to his ex-wife.
But doubts, fuelled by Rachel’s erratic behaviour, continue to niggle away at the edges of his subconscious.
Misunderstood Madonna or evil temptress? Phillip oscillates wildly between the intensity of these two positions. But somehow the film never manages to convey any real sense of menace.
My Cousin Rachel is a cracker of a yarn. But the first film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel since the 1952 Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland version is hampered by a sense of contemporary reserve. To tell a story like this one, you can’t hold anything back.