Film Review: My Cousin Rachel

by Carrie Kahn on June 9, 2017

Hitchcockian thriller will leave you guessing 

Philip (Sam Claflin) is unsure what to make of his Cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) when she comes to stay. 

If you find yourself left edgy and itchy when the film you’re watching doesn’t wrap up nice and neat and tidy, then you’d do well to avoid My Cousin Rachel, a period drama that raises more questions than it answers, and leaves its viewers in a state of ambiguity. Of course if you find such a state more intriguing than frustrating, then you’ll definitely want to add this picture to your summer viewing list. In fact, you’ll want to give it the number one spot.

Directed by the South African born British director Roger Michell (Notting Hill; Le Week-End), My Cousin Rachel is based on the 1951 Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name. Du Maurier also authored the books from which two Alfred Hitchcock cinematic classics were adapted: Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963). A film version of My Cousin Rachel was actually made once before, in 1952, although, surprisingly, it was not directed by Hitchcock, despite is similarly psychologically suspenseful premise.

Hmmm… is accepting tea from Cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) a good idea!?

Michell, however, who also has his first screenwriting credit here, fittingly pays homage to the Master of Suspense some 60-plus years later by crafting a picture that has a distinct Jane Austen-Meets-Hitchcock sensibility. With its stately British manors, windswept Cornwall sea cliffs, galloping elegant horses, and refined Victorian costumes, Michell’s film is lush and lovely to look at. And, as with all the best thrillers, its gorgeous exterior belies an overarching sense of unease, and contrasts with the more menacing inner lives of the film’s characters.

Sam Claflin plays Philip Ashley, who, like so many British protagonists from the Victorian era, is orphaned and raised by a guardian – in this case, his older and much beloved cousin Ambrose. As the picture begins, Philip receives troubling letters from Cousin Ambrose, who is recovering from an illness in Florence; in them, Ambrose implies that his new wife, a distant cousin named Rachel (Rachel Weisz) may be behind his deteriorating health. Before Philip can adequately investigate, however, Ambrose dies, and Philip is left seething and resentful. Philip becomes convinced of Cousin Rachel’s complicity in Ambrose’s death, despite learning that a brain tumor may have left Ambrose delirious, confused, and irrational.

Philip’s tune changes, however, when he meets Rachel for the first time when she visits the Ashley estate, which Philip will soon inherit on his impending 25th birthday. Philip immediately becomes smitten with the beautiful and charming Rachel, much to the consternation of his godfather Nick (Iain Glenn) and Nick’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), who doubt Rachel’s motives.

Philip (Sam Claflin, l.) consults with his godfather Nick (Iain Glen). 

Michell proves himself a worthy successor to Hitchcock, as he carefully ratchets up the tension and suspense with seemingly benign plot elements (Rachel likes to brew a special herbal tea; a frequently travelled path near the estate is in disrepair; Rachel is overdrawn on the allowance Philip has allotted her) that take on questionable, vaguely sinister meaning when viewed from the perspective of the story’s various characters, The sense of foreboding is enhanced in large part by terrific work by Rachel Weisz, an often inscrutable actress who excels at exuding an air of mystery. And Claflin (who was great as the buttoned up screenwriter in the recent Their Finest) holds his own here, in the showier but in some ways more difficult role of a man driven mad by his own thoughts and suspicions. Such a role runs the risk of devolving into camp, but Claflin brings to it a wrenching authenticity that elicits our sympathy even as we struggle to understand some of Philip’s choices.

As Philip begins to find that his feelings for Rachel may not be wholly reciprocated, he becomes more and more unhinged, and we in the audience find our hearts beating faster and faster, as we wonder just who in the movie is telling the truth, and who is to be trusted. “Rachel, my torment” is a line that’s uttered more than once in the film; yet we are never sure if the torment is real, or imagined — physical, or psychological. What we do know with certainty, though, is that Michell has given us no easy answers, and that it’s up to us, like Philip, to sort out Cousin Rachel’s true motivations. You may not have the luxury of a long horse-drawn carriage ride home from the theater, but the shorter car ride should still allow you plenty of time for what no doubt will be a spirited discussion about just what Cousin Rachel did – or didn’t – do.

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My Cousin Rachel opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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