Phillip Ashley (Sam Clafin) is an orphan. As a boy, he was taken in and raised by his cousin, Ambrose (also played by Clafin), who Phillip learnt to look upon as almost a father. As the years pass by, Ambrose develops a brain tumor. He’s rushed far away and put into intensive care under the guidance of a mysterious woman, who he soon goes on to fall in love with and marry. This woman is Rachel (Rachel Weisz). But Ambrose’s illness grows worse, and it doesn’t take long before a handful of concerning letters start arriving at Phillip’s home, describing Rachel’s wicked ways and attempts at poisoning Ambrose. He dies. Phillip is left with nobody. A furious anger boils up inside of him, wanting vengeance over the woman who supposedly killed the only father he ever knew.
My Cousin Rachel is successful in its attempts at drawing you into this dark, atmospheric environment, full of time-appropriate costumes and sets. Everything is big and beautiful, from the tinniest little detail on a pearl necklace to the stunning simplicity of England’s sweeping hills and sandy beaches. The production design team is certainty in heaven when it comes to this movie. Rachel’s devious, all-black clothing is perfectly moody and wicked in design. It’s a movie pulled authentically out of its ravish time period, almost without fault. Rarely does it feel as though it’s being shot on a sound stage, if it even was at all, and cinematographer Mike Eley captures it with grace and beauty. Some of his shots feel clunky and mechanical, and a whole heap of others are quite bland and generic, but every so often, there’s beauty to be found.
Rachel’s true nature is kept ambiguous throughout. Long after the credits rolled, questions still remained about certain aspects of her behaviour, and while that’s the point of this movie, the mystery creates further distance between filmmaker and audience. Writer-director Roger Michell makes an attempt at involving the audience, a bold and admirable decision that a lot of films fail to achieve. He gets you thinking and questioning the happenings of the household, as well as Rachel’s motives, but the focus is placed on all the wrong areas. It’s slow and drawn out, the first hour especially. Clues of Rachel’s past are planted throughout, but rarely does anything of significance takes place until almost an hour in. Michell is able to draw audiences into the world, but leaves them lingering far too long for any of them to really care about what’s happening.
I walked out of My Cousin Rachel incredibly dissatisfied, describing it as being incredibly boring, and to a certain degree it is, but the more time I’ve spent thinking about it, the higher I look upon it. The film is, by no means, great. It’s a lengthy, slow and unintentionally creepy romance that isn’t as mysterious as it thinks it is or as messed up as it wants to be. But there’s something fascinating about it, leaving you questioning the plot well after its conclusion. It could’ve been something so much more, but what we’re left with is far from terrible.
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