“Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?”
Because I’m a bad literary fan, I’m not very familiar with English author Daphne du Maurier. Because I’m also a bad film fan, I haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Rebecca or any other du Maurier’s adaptations away from The Birds. To enter screenwriter/director Roger Michell’s lavishly solemn My Cousin Rachel as a semi-formal introduction was a curious, if not terrifically extraordinary, viewing experience. Sincerely well-crafted and decently well-told, the filmmaker behind Notting Hill, Venus and Morning Glory presents a commendably formal yet casually nerve-wracking imagining of one of du Maurier’s most revered works, one that doesn’t necessarily transcend the limitations that come with bringing such well-regarded novels to the screen but also doesn’t strain far from what made it such a beloved literary achievement. In short, it’s a well-groomed, finely-tuned cinematic telling that won’t become the definitive du Maurier adaptation any time soon. Not that I’m an expert on the matter, of course, but I know this one isn’t the next Rebecca.
Raised lovingly by his adoring, well-respected cousin, Ambrose Ashley (Sam Claflin), sensitive, bright-eyed 24-year-old orphan Philip (Claflin) is brought into luxury through Ambrose’s extravagant (if unsettling) countryside estate. Their relationship is fond and loving, yet when Ambrose mysteriously escapes to Florence and unexpectedly marries his cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), Philip is left with more questions than answers — most especially when Ambrose soon winds up dead due to a fatal brain tumor. Alone and most certain that Rachel is the one responsible for Ambrose’s mysterious death, Philip meets Rachel with anger only to soon find himself smitten by her elegant, otherworldly charms. Sure enough, Philip is infatuated beyond belief, in a manner that would only make sense to someone so painfully loveless as this particular gooey-hearted gentleman, and he’s willing to give everything in his newfound fortune in order to appease Rachel’s hand in marriage. Rachel is reluctant and Philip is soon overcome with a restless mind.
Is Rachel truly deceiving Philip? Or is it simply the madness spawned from his own mind that causes him to hold such doubts? One needs to either read du Maurier’s novel or watch this adaptation to gain answers — although it’s to the film’s firm benefit that such questions are intentionally left vague up until the very end. Even then, Mitchell’s My Cousin Rachel still wants to leave you in a perpetual state of unease. That’s something Mitchell’s commendable-but-ultimately-rather-middling new film can’t achieve quite so well.
Handsomely told and morbidly intriguing, if not maddeningly riveting, My Cousin Rachel is a respectable, periodically engrossing but disappointingly moderate adaptation, filled with exquisite details and well-groomed performances but nothing that truly spellbinds you. The strikingly somber cinematography by Mike Eley (Touching the Void) is perhaps the brightest star, but that’s not to dismiss the strong acting from our leads. Working hard to not to be remembered as the dashing, often shirtless hunk from the Hunger Games sequels, Claflin impresses perhaps more than ever. And it would be a sad, dampened day in Hell if Weisz gave a bad performance, and thankfully that’s far from the case here. She’s as cunning and convincingly undecipherable as you’d imagine, and she carries the ingrained intrigue of Mitchell’s period thriller with zest even when the filmmaker can’t quite navigate du Maurier’s deceptive twists-and-turns.
As a bold, beautifully photographed examination of desire and madness, Mitchell’s My Cousin Rachel is a dutiful, worthwhile adaptation, even beyond its lumpy pacing and mostly straightforward story mechanics. It’s evident that the second half is where Mitchell really feels inspired (away from an unexpectedly invigorated opening flashback sequence); that’s additionally when My Cousin Rachel comes into form. Even if it won’t be remembered as a definitive, long-standing du Maurier adaptation, it’s convicting, attractive and oddly amorous enough (“They’re cousins, for goodness sake,” I kept reminding myself) to earn your attention and appreciation. Whether you come with no familiarity to du Maurier’s work or you know every single word, you’ll find something to keep your interest throughout My Cousin Rachel‘s stay.