My Cousin Rachel is a showcase of Rachel Weisz’s ability to captivate an audience, but her performance is not enough to save the inevitable disappointment of the story’s conclusion. The film is only the second filmic adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel. The film itself is a tightly written and acted flurry of scenes, in which the audience is then purposefully thrown off-beat for the longer scenes. Director Roger Michell develops a lush vision of the cliffs of 19th century England and Italy, with an attention to detail that will reward a second viewing.
Rachel Weisz is Rachel, a recent widow of a man named Ambrose, who dies from a brain tumor. Before meeting Rachel, he raised his much younger cousin Philip (Sam Claflin), but with the oddity of raising him without a female figure involved in his life. Even as a bachelor, Ambrose’s housekeepers and butlers are all male. He eventually sends young Philip away for school, and Philip returns as an adult having had no real interaction with women. This might be the biggest error of Philip’s upbringing—that he never questions the absence of another gender in his home life at all—and sets him up to be mystified by the two women he knows, his god-sister Louise (Holliday Grainger) and the woman he only meets after Ambrose’s death, Rachel.
The film’s tension comes from the audience’s perspective and Philip’s obvious naivety. Philip, who confesses early on that he was not enamored with books or schooling, reads the letters from Ambrose aloud and discovers a message panic-scrawled into a corner of the note. The note states Ambrose’s belief that his wife is trying to kill him. Obviously, Philip determines that Rachel is responsible for his death so he travels to Italy, her home country, to confront her. When he arrives, she isn’t there: the estate itself is barren, with no furniture and obvious disrepair to the whole building. A dog is chained outside just out of the reach of water. Philip goes home confused. This is merely the beginning of his lesson.
It turns out that Rachel is in England, so Philip invites her to come stay at the house he grew up in – the very same roof owned by Ambrose. He plans on trapping her, but she is… how can we put this kindly… much more intelligent than him. The first time he interacts with him is through his own butler, because she ate her dinner without his company and retired to her room. Rachel takes his power away from him before he can even meet her, and when he finally does, he is entranced by her. The black widow spider is who he believes her to be, and even if she is not out to murder men, she is clearly capable of manipulation.
Rachel Weisz’s character is clearly drawn as someone who immediately recognizes the innocence of her cousin-by-marriage, but takes advantage of Philip’s generosity. He falls head over heels, infatuated with her very existence, even though his godfather (Iain Glen aka Ser Jorah) wanted Philip to wed his daughter, Louise. Of course, Louise is sad to not be the apple of the idiot’s eye, but she recognizes the value in his friendship and remains by his side… until he starts giving Rachel everything. Literally, all of the things—the money, the house, the jewels—all of it gets signed away because he thinks he has fallen in love with Rachel. Philip ignores literally every person he consults, and even betrays his own initial motives for bringing her into the house. This leads to some often-funny moments of awkwardness, in which characters react to Philip the way the audience in the theater does. At the start his goal was to kill her, but by the middle he is throwing himself at her. It takes Philip far too long to realize the brashness of his decisions. Louise and Jorah Mormont are not amused.
The film’s beauty is enhanced by unusual close-ups, framing, and a special focus on Rachel’s face. It is her face that tells the truth, more than any assumption Philip may make, because Philip never asks the questions he is thinking about. Actor Sam Claflin is great playing an adult who an older woman refers to as “just a boy,” because it’s true: he behaves like a hormonal teenager. The two have chemistry, but Philip’s vision of romance is a gross misunderstanding of Rachel’s gratitude. She knows that she has lost her husband but Philip has lost a father figure, and while her instinct may be to take advantage, she also tries to take care of him. A man who interacts infrequently with women might not see the possibility of friendship, of mutual grief, and take it too far.
Though the film is described as a thriller, it’s more of a gothic mystery, in which foreigners are untrustworthy, darkness is constant, candles illuminate but obscure, and women are gaining independence. Men’s fears of powerful women still haven’t gone away, so the film’s ideas work, because it shows exactly the sort of misogyny that can develop when women are not valued enough to be spoken to as equals. The reality of Philip’s situation is that he saw her as a devil, and then an angel, rather than a human.
Though My Cousin Rachel is a brisk 106 minutes, it packs a lot into a little. It’s worth a watch, even if it’s just to discuss how things should have ended. My theory? Rachel’s just bad at making tea.