A film that’s part gothic romance, part murder mystery, and part pastoral coming-of-age, My Cousin Rachel is just what a film of its genre and intentions ought to be. For making us question hundreds of years' worth of literary tropes, it merits 4 out of 5.
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) is left as the heir to a large estate and much wealth when his much-loved guardian and cousin Ambrose dies abroad in Italy. Amidst his grief, Philip must also reckon with Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the woman who met Ambrose abroad and drew him into marriage after a lifetime of happy bachelorhood. Now twice-widowed, this mysterious half-Italian woman makes her way to the Ashley estate in England, but Philip is on his guard. For you see, the last few letters from Ambrose were wild with panic and horror, hastily dashed-off letters entreating that Philip save him... from the cruel and monstrous Rachel.
Yet, when she arrives in England, Rachel is meek and kind. She is an ethereal kind of delicate: generous, thoughtful, tactful, and resourceful. Philip's mistrust of her gradually turns to admiration and even obsession, until he too begins to fall ill. Is Rachel a husband-killer hiding a dark secret, as he first imagined? Or are there forces even more complicated and mysterious at work?
Many aspects of this film ring quite true, from its nimble use of narration and montage, to its sure-footed period-piece aesthetic that uses scenery, props and costumes deftly without becoming distracting or trying to show off. Director Roger Michell knows when to keep framing simple, and when to add drama and romance into a shot. He understands light and darkness, something you only notice when films are particularly good or particularly bad about it.
The cast (Weisz especially) offers gripping performances, satisfying relationships, and believable character arcs. And while Philip is a turbulent character who isn't always fun to watch or easy to empathize with, his twisting and turning orbit around Rachel remains resolutely fascinating. As a love story, a tale of loss and grief, a mystery, and ultimately a profound social commentary about obsession and the male gaze, the film works steadily on all cylinders.
If anything might work against the film, it could be its slow pace and safe choices. Some will appreciate and enjoy Michell's restraint, but others will itch for larger, louder, more grotesque moments that you might expect from a movie so clearly in the gothic vein. Additionally, Claflin, while steady, is not always the thrumming star others might have been. But as the film shows him pale against his female counterpart, we are left wondering if it might all be precisely intentional!
As is the case in many a gothic story, there is darkness that turns out to be more complicated than it first appears. Ultimately, this film takes a trope (the "black widow," the fortune hunter, the witch) and asks us to examine it more closely. Does a storyteller affect who we are likely to side with after hearing a tale? Does a person who speaks strangely or comes from a strange land arouse our suspicions unjustly? Is it possible the person we think of as villainous, might in fact be a victim?
RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of this story's original novelist Daphne Du Maurier (and stories like Rebecca and The Birds). Lovers of the gothic romance and a good period piece. Those interested in genre-subverting and gender commentary. Admirers of Rachel Weisz.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: The impatient or easily-bored filmgoer. Those still reeling hard from broken hearts or complicated relationships. Those who need a "Wonder Woman" kind of filmic study in women. Those hoping for a super creepy horror flick.
My Cousin Rachel, directed by Roger Michell, opened in theaters June 9, 2017; available for home viewing August 29, 2017. It runs 106 minutes and stars Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen and Pierfrancesco Favino. Watch the trailer for My Cousin Rachel here.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: June 9, 2017
Image courtesy: ©FoxSearchlight