'My Cousin Rachel'
Adapted from a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (‘Rebecca’, ‘The Birds’) and mounted with the prettiest period costumes available in the British film industry, ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is a thriller from another time with a contemporary thematic sheen. It’ll work for those who enjoy the old films that inspired writer/director Roger Michell (‘Notting Hill’), but doesn’t sneak in enough twists to the old-fashioned formulas to tickle the uninitiated.
The story unfolds from the sheltered perspective of Philip (Sam Claflin), an orphan boy who has been raised by his cousin Ambrose (also Clafin). When Ambrose travels to Florence, he quickly weds a distant Italian cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), whom Philip has never met. Through letters, Philip slowly learns that Ambrose has grown paranoid and concerned about his new bride. When he travels Florence for a visit, Philip learns that Ambrose died from a brain tumor, Rachel has disappeared, and that he has inherited the entire estate. The tumor was supposed to explain Ambrose’s paranoid ramblings, but Philip isn’t convinced. When he finally meets Rachel, he’s immediately seduced by her charm, intelligence, and independent thinking. He quickly decides that he’s in love and wants to marry her. Is she a black widow femme fatale or is it just the intimidated and mentally cracked men around her who feel that way?
‘My Cousin Rachel’ falls squarely into the Gothic tradition and writer/director Michell enjoys the opportunity to play in that world. Evocative landscapes, dusty and foreboding buildings, creaking staircases, mysteries that spiral out of control, pained romance… it’s all there. Unfortunately, Michell is perhaps a little too politely British and concerned with the tastefulness and handsomeness of his production to really nail it. Of course, that’s flavored by the fact that Guillermo del Toro delivered a deliciously stylized and beautifully executed Gothic chiller in ‘Crimson Peak’ not that long ago. Del Toro’s film luxuriated in the style, perversion and atmosphere of the genre to such a glorious extent that ‘My Cousin Rachel’ feels particularly stuffy by comparison. Granted, it’s not Michell or his film’s fault that ‘Crimson Peak’ exists. Nonetheless, the stuffy flaws of this comparatively conservative production seem much more pronounced.
That said, the film certainly works on its own terms. It does creep and provoke in more genteel ways. The cast is superb. Sam Clafin’s clever double-casting adds to the bizarre nature of those characters’ relationships. Rachel Weisz portrays her namesake in wonderfully charming and subtly unsettling ways. The story itself was always somewhat of a feminist commentary on the Gothic genre and that will play quite well for contemporary audiences. Even though ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is ultimately a thriller, it has depth worth exploring at least for the two hours in the theater. The production is well-mounted. Pacing and suspense are strong. The movie works well within the rigid confines of its genre and the particular style of reserved British filmmaking. If nothing else, Michell knows how to make middlebrow entertainment feel upper middlebrow, though not quite highbrow.
‘My Cousin Rachel’ has many charms that very much make it worth seeing. However, it never transcends its origins or genre. The film delivers exactly what is to be expected and nothing more. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach, there’s nothing particularly special about it either. Those who seek out this sort of thing (‘Downton Abbey’ fans, etc.) will likely appreciate it in the moment and probably never return to it again. Those who get bored when refined British accents lay out exposition in voiceover accompanied by shots of moody mansions and immaculate period costumes will find nothing new here. C’est la vie.