My Cousin Rachel
The works of Daphne du Maurier have attracted the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, Nicolas Roeg, and now – finally – Roger Michell, the director of Notting Hill. He makes a fairly decent stab at My Cousin Rachel, the second time that this twisty story of incest and gender relations has been brought to the big screen. But it’s still far too tasteful for its own good, hell-bent on smoothing over a gothic story of sex and madness to sell to the Downton crowd – and downplaying its most interesting material in the process.
Opening with a barrage of exposition (and a confusing bit of double-casting), the film settles on Phillip (Sam Claflin), a handsome young man in Victorian England and soon-to-be heir of a vast fortune. He regularly receives letters from his guardian Ambrose, off in Italy and recently married to his cousin Rachel. Yet when Ambrose dies from an illness, Phillip has reason to suspect that Rachel may have played a nefarious hand in such affairs. He swears to treat the woman poorly when she visits, and he maintains that promise up until the point where he meets her.
For Rachel is played by Rachel Weisz, a good actress whose nervy, very British disposition often masks some fascinating work going on beneath the surface. She’s more than capable of sustaining the story’s central mystery – the inscrutability of her gender from the perspective of a young, male pubescent – and she shares some nice chemistry with Claflin, the power dynamics of their relationship often shifting from sentence to sentence.
Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of her in this adaptation, which is largely weighted towards the men. (Admittedly, Iain Glen offers some fine, sensitive work as Phillip’s godfather.) Michell also lacks a firm grasp of tone, lurching from swooning romanticism to familial melodrama to unnerving psychological thrills without much grace. And there is something decidedly bloodless about its buttoned-up treatment of sex, which could have otherwise injected some life into a turgid middle section. Things rally a bit for the disturbing conclusion, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a safe, familiar treatment of a writer who was anything but.
My Cousin Rachel is released nationwide on 9th June 2017.
Watch the trailer for My Cousin Rachel here: