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My Cousin Rachel
United Kingdom 2017
Directed by Roger Michell
Running time 106 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis: Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) is the 24-year old heir to the large Cornish estate of his older cousin, Ambrose (also Claflin), who travels to Florence, Italy where finds his cousin dead.  Based on Ambrose’s letters. he suspects that Ambrose’s wife, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), is responsible and vows revenge. She, however, is nowhere to be found.  Back in England he is surprised when she comes to visit and even more so when she appears not to be the monster he had imagined.  He quickly falls for her but in his infatuation is he failing to see that her charms conceal a ruthless schemer out to possess her former husband’s estate?

Anyone who likes period films will enjoy this skilfully crafted adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel of the same name. Anyone looking for an engaging story will be intrigued by its ruling question – is Rachel a coldly calculating adventuress or a mis-judged victim of circumstance? Anyone looking for dramatic heat perhaps will be less enamoured of writer-director Roger Michell’s coolly detached telling of it.

Whilst the story could certainly have borne some more libidinally-charged interaction between Philip and Rachel, the film as it is it offers largely intellectual pleasures as in the style of a psychological thriller, Michell keeps us guessing about Rachel.  Is she a classic black widow femme fatale about to swallow Philip alive or is she a rare creature in a society in which women had no independent status and their refusal to comply with the approved manners and mores was interpreted as moral perfidy? As Philip observes to Rachel about her tase for herbal brews, its strangeness would be enough to earn her the reputation of being a witch. The film cleverly keeps both interpretations alive, sometimes by virtue of the plot itself providing suggestions that Rachel is playing some kind of crafty deception, sometimes by framing her actions so that they might be interpreted by us that way. As one would expect Rael Jones’ music is used extensively to cue our suspicions.

If the strength of Michell’s approach is its even-handed chess-like tussle between opposing interpretations one of the results of this approach is to subdue the performances of the leads. Claflin who can be seen to better effect in the currently-screening Their Finest seems a little too self-possessed for a 24-year old, particularly one with mother issues. Weisz, also recently seen to better effect in Denial is perfectly adequate to her part but one never feels that she takes command of her character or projects the ambiguity which instead Michell builds around her. I also had my doubts about the post-script ending to the film which although I assume is faithful to Du Maurier's novel would have been better omitted here.

Nevertheless, with superb visuals, a consistently high standard of production and a strong story My Cousin Rachel provides a solidly rewarding filmic experience.  

FYI: There was a 1952 version starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton that I have not seen but simply in terms of casting sounds questionable.

 

 

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