Gothic romance isn’t as popular a genre as it once was, but Roger Michell’s take on My Cousin Rachel is here to bring it back. There’s a reason Hitchcock adapted author Daphne du Maurier’s work into The Birds and Rebecca, and this film’s source material shares a lot of the same suspense and intrigue as those novels. The result here is an oddly distant look at gender and obsession, offering brief insight into the characters even when their actions don’t make much sense.
When Philip (Sam Claflin) receives news that that the man who raised him has died shortly after marrying the mysterious Rachel (Rachel Weisz), he plans to confront the woman he believes is responsible. After she arrives, however, Philip slowly falls for her charms and begins overlooking her suspicious behaviour despite the constant protestations of those around him.
My Cousin Rachel isn’t particularly preoccupied with subtlety, every scene hammering home the idea that Rachel could be playing Philip for everything he’s worth. We’re served long, lingering shots of her making and serving him ‘special tea’, and she is kept deliberately unknowable so as to leave the mystery element ticking along in the background.
This is the kind of film that begins with the weather as a portent for dangerous things to come, the wind outside throwing open the shutters just as Philip learns of Rachel’s possible involvement in his beloved cousin’s life and subsequent death. When this kind of thing works, it’s because the film knows what it is and doubles down on the pulpiness.
To a modern audience especially, Philip comes across as profoundly stupid, and his naivety comes from his complete lack of experience with the fairer sex. We’re told early on that women were not permitted in Ambrose’s home while Philip was growing up, and later he’s shown to be innocently perplexed by Rachel’s behaviour. He’s never seen a woman cry before, he tells her, and it’s clear this is reason he is so immediately enthralled by her.
The performances save the film from succumbing to its sillier tendencies, with Claflin finally cementing his place as a rare young actor with the potential to become a star outside of his franchise dalliances. The difficulty of doing this shouldn’t be underestimated, and it’s possible that his impressive turn here will wipe away some of the bad will generated by last year’s misjudged Me Before You.
Weisz, as normal, is also excellent as the potentially duplicitous Rachel. It’s a role that requires whoever inhabits her to come across beguiling and sinister at the same time, and that line is straddled expertly. Similarly, Holliday Grainger is arresting in the rather thankless role of Louise, daughter of Philip’s legal guardian and his unrequited admirer.
Where My Cousin Rachel offers more than the now-familiar beats of its source material is in its examination of gender roles of the time. The audience understands from the start that, if Rachel is indeed manipulating her new landlord into transferring his wealth and assets to her, it is only because she is not afforded any of her own.
Ambrose did not change his will to reflect his marriage and, even if Rachel is included after the fact, she may not be permitted to remarry or even leave the house of her benefactor. As we’re told, the options for her are supremely limited, and one must do what one must do to survive.
Similarly, Philip is presented as immature and entitled when it comes to his new guest, and his behaviour is indicative of a society that trades women from one man to another as a matter of course. Philip believes that Rachel belongs to him because everything he knows tells him that’s the truth, and he cannot imagine a scenario in which she has any choice of her own.
Is Rachel just a sweet widow, her life constrained by society’s need to attach her to a husband, or is she a master manipulator, using Philip to further her chances in a world hostile to women like her? That’s the question My Cousin Rachel poses, but refuses to answer.
While it’s an intriguing set-up and the strong performances more or less sell it, the execution may leave you feeling a little underwhelmed and slightly bewildered.
My Cousin Rachel in UK cinemas now.