My Cousin Rachel leads you on a merry little Victorian dance. It achieves this goal with a degree of class, but for all that, by film’s end I found myself not caring too much about the characters. Its early promise didn’t quite bear fruit.
I was not familiar with the source novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, but from what I have read since, the story sits comfortably as one of her romance mysteries with a not-too-neatly-tied-up ending. Watching it unfold I made a note that it felt like a Hitchcock thriller, and it was only later I realised that another Du Maurier story, The Birds, was of course adapted to film by Hitchcock.
The Hitchcock reference is useful as a way of allowing you to negotiate the twists of the plot. Sam Claflin plays Philip Ashley, adopted as a youngster by his much older cousin Ambrose (to whom he bears a striking resemblance). Philip looks upon Ambrose as his father, and is devoted to him. But when Ambrose gets sick, he leaves his English country manor to spend time in the warmer climate of Italy. There he meets, falls in love, and marries his cousin Rachel, here played by Rachel Weisz.
Subsequently Philip is distraught to read a letter from Ambrose, in which he describes not only his failing health but the apparently evil designs of Rachel. Furious, Philip heads to Italy to confront Rachel and rescue his beloved Ambrose, only to find that Ambrose has died.
So he finally meets Rachel, and here the main tension of the story plays out: Rachel goes on to cast a spell over Philip, but for what purpose? For most of the rest of the film, we are led to believe that Rachel is a skilled manipulator and schemer, out for riches. But just enough is laid out to suggest there could be another explanation.
So the film expertly teases us along, but for the teasing to work, we need to care about the characters involved. And somewhere in the second half of the film, the required attachment began to ebb, at least for my part. This was not to do with the quality of the acting. Rachel Weisz keeps us guessing superbly. She is vulnerable, yet beguiling, reeling in Philip and then easing him off, only to reel him in again. Throughout you are left with the feeling you are never seeing the true Rachel, which is a credit to Weisz’s acting skill. So yes, I admired the mystery of Rachel, but that mystery increasingly left me feeling a little detached from the character. I didn’t think I was going to find out what she was about. So, you ask yourself, how much do you care?
Sam Claflin’s Philip is easier to read. The actor does a fine job as a headstrong and naïve young man who dangerously follows his heart over his head. He’s easy prey. Usually your heart goes out to the victim. In this case, that victim is also the lord of an estate, wealthy and entitled, a man of his time. A sympathetic character? The longer the story played out, the less sympathy I found myself extending his way.
There is a strong cast all round. Philip has a few wise heads around him, namely his godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glenn) and Nick’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), who try to persuade him from falling into Rachel’s clutches. Both these actors carry off their roles with aplomb. So does Pierfrancesco Favino, as Rachel’s confidant Rinaldi.
I could tell from some chatter around me in the cinema that many were utterly engrossed in the film and lapped it up. If you are a fan of the old Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs type period drama, this will be for you. It is nicely directed and produced, very well acted, and it’s a clever little mystery that keeps you not quite sure what will happen next. That’s plenty enough to recommend it.
Perhaps my reservations stem from not being much of a fan of this type of dramatic setting. The travails of the upper class are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, no matter how well they’re produced.