Daphne du Maurier’s novels were very popular in the earlier decades of the 20th century. Several of them were filmed, most notably Hitchcock’s version of Rebecca (Oscar-winner as best film of 1940). There was also a version of her smugglers story, Jamaica Inn, later filmed in two television miniseries as well as Frenchman’s Creek. She was also the author of the novel which was the basis for Hitchcock’s The Birds. But, there was another version of the novel, My Cousin Rachel, 1952, with Olivia de Haviland in the title role and the young Richard Burton playing her cousin. Now, 65 years later, here is another version.
The film takes us back to Cornwall in the 19th century, the kind of location that many audiences enjoy (thinking of versions of Thomas Hardy’s novels like Far from the Madding Crowd). The film opens with helicopter shots of fields, jagged cliffs, the beach and a bay. And, the central character, Philip Ashley, wondering about what Rachel has done and her responsibilities. And this is where the action comes back to at the end.
Audiences will enjoy the recreation of this 19th-century world, a country mansion, an estate and farm, the local town, costumes and decor, and attention to detail of life in those times. And, there is also an excursion to Tuscany.
The story is told from the point of view of Philip Ashley, played in a brooding manner by Sam Claflin, about to turn 25, an orphan adopted by his cousin who, for health reasons, went to Italy where he met Rachel and married her. Now he is dead. Philip peruses letters that his cousin Ambrose had written, strong suggestions that Rachel had conspired to kill him. Angrily, Philip goes to Italy, meets Rachel’s advisor, Rainaldi, but fails to meet Rachel.
Suddenly, he discovers that Rachel is in England and is coming to visit, enraging him the more. As might be expected from this kind of melodrama, Rachel is not at all what he thought she was, she is able to control him, charms everyone at the farm, Philip’s Godfather and his daughter, and Philip is infatuated. With Rachel Weisz as Rachel, there is no difficulty in appreciating why Philip becomes infatuated.
Of course, the importance for the audience is that we are never sure of what Rachel has done or not done, but how she controls Philip, about his motivation, willingly giving her his mother’s jewels, wanting to hand over the whole estate to her.
So, the film is about appearances, innuendo, suspicions, obsessions – which may or may not be justified and which lead to some unforeseen disastrous consequences.
There is a good supporting cast including Iain Glenn as the godfather and Holliday Granger is his daughter he would like Philip to marry. British theatre actor, Simon Russell Beale, appears as the local solicitor. Adaptor-director is Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes).
The appeal is to an older audience, one which relishes revisiting the British past and which is willingly caught up in emotional melodrama.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is a handsomely crafted and atmospheric picture. It boasts a strong cast, and its narrative tackles a well-worn tale of romantic woe, wherein our protagonist grapples with conflicting emotions of love and doubt. The fast-paced finale doesn’t do the build-up justice, but it’s a moderately diverting and faithful adaptation.
After being orphaned at a young age, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, compelling) is taken in by his cousin, Ambrose, the wealthy owner of a large country estate in 19th century England. The landscape of his home is stunning, rolling green hills dotted with impeccably designed period buildings. Cinematographer Mike Eley shoots the beautiful British countryside in extremely clean, crisp wide-shots. After being diagnosed with an unnamed but serious illness, Ambrose moves to Italy to take in the sun, sending back word after a few months of his marriage to a widow, Rachel. The introduction has a brisk, contemporary pace, blending its dynamic camerawork with a pregnant sense of intrigue – who is this Rachel and what are her designs on Ambrose’s wealth?
After some more time passes, Philip receives a horrifying letter from Ambrose, raving about Rachel’s conspiring with their Italian lawyer, Rinaldi, and their attempts to poison him. ‘Come at once’, he commands Philip, who duly does so. He arrives in Italy to find Rinaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) in Ambrose’s now empty home – Ambrose has died and Rachel has fled. Philip returns home to England, where he learns from his godfather, Nick (Iain Glen), that Ambrose had not edited his will since marrying Rachel, and that he alone has inherited his estate and title. What’s more, Ambrose’s autopsy revealed a brain tumour that feasibly could have meddle with his sanity before he succumbed. Philip remains convinced of Rachel’s hand in his cousin’s death. When he learns of Rachel’s arrival in the country, he invites her to stay, planning to confront her about Ambrose’s mysterious passing.
Rachel (Rachel Weisz) arrives, and Philip is quickly disarmed by her beauty and charm. She works her magic over his staff and farmhands as well, and establishes herself as a welcome presence in their lives. Weisz gives a wonderful performance, bewitchingly odd but shot through with a dark streak. She’s both believably lovely and sinister, filling every demure pause with the impression that she has a secret to share. As Philip is pulled into her orbit, the question of her guilt remains unanswered, and thus begins an uneasy dance between the pair, moving ever closer to intimacy and destruction.
The film treads curious territory between repulsion and magnetism – with every decision Philip makes while blinded by love, his situation looks to become more precarious, so there’s a constant element of fear and frustration that his apparent foolishness is mere moments away from fast-tracking his undoing. This dread permeates the narrative, almost threatening to suffocate the arch enjoyment bubbling away in its gothic mystery – indeed, the central question of ‘did Rachel do it?’ could have done with some more evidence to suggest that she didn’t, which would have pushed what’s essentially a tragedy into more of a thriller. The ambiguous denouement, which covers a glut of twists in fast succession, doesn’t deliver satisfactorily on the numerous questions that are set up prior, but it does manage to surprise.
With its fast pace and erotic thrills, ‘My Cousin Rachel’ translates a 66-year-old, period-set novel into a very modern drama driven by a stellar lead performance. It falls shorts of achieving the excellence that it is constantly threatening, but it breathes life into a classic test nonetheless.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting