By Jack Dignan
If any avid period piece enthusiasts were seeking a little bit more incest with their romance movies, My Cousin Rachel is the film for you. Although, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Daphne Du Maurier’s, author of Rebecca, famed 1951 novel brought to life. The story received a big screen adaptation back in 1952, a mere year after the book’s initial release. It was a hit, rounding up a solid four Oscar nominations. Years later, in 1983, there was a second adaptation of the novel, this time in the form of a four episode mini-series. Now, Rachel is back, seeing the story told once again, through more contemporary eyes. As someone unfamiliar with any of the previous adaptations, I got to experience this movie through fresh eyes, and, uh, it was a rather strange experience, to say the least.
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.
Never having met her before, Phillip invites Rachel to stay with him, anxious and unsure of what to say when she arrives. His mental image of her is far from pleasant, but upon arrival, they’re both taken aback. Rachel, in every sense of the word, is beautiful. And Phillip knows it. Phillip, also, bares a striking resemblance to Ambrose, taking Rachel by surprise. Neither of them are remotely how they pictured each other, and in almost no time at all, Phillip starts falling under his cousin’s spell, developed a strange, but shockingly not frowned upon infatuation with the woman living in his home; the woman who is, technically, family. But is their love real? Or is it, perhaps, a ploy being acted out by the mysterious, overly charming Rachel, whom nobody knows too much about?
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.
Bringing this world to life are the two lead actors, Clafin and Weisz. They share an uneasy compatibility, something that’s necessary to the story. Their pre-determined hatred for one another withers away in almost no time at all, replaced soon after by an ever-growing affection. Both Clafin and Weisz nail their respective roles, delivering performances true to the characters written in the screenplay. But that’s where this film falters. The actors do their best with what they’ve got, but there’s nobody you’re able to necessarily root for. Clafin is a stuck up brat, yelling and screaming and borderline abusing his staff members, not to mention his questionable, misogynistic behaviours towards woman. It’s done for a reason, relating heavily into the story, but it makes the whole film feel a little too distant. You’re unable to connect with the characters.
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.
Then, the third act happens. It’s during this finale where everything comes into the light, and the characters make a complete 180 turn around from where they previously stood. A lot of aspects about this third act clicked with me. Certain plot elements worked, especially the lingering question remaining on everyone’s mind, but a lot of it doesn’t. The entire third act is full of red herrings and unnecessarily complications, all building up to an ending that left me not necessarily unsatisfied, but in need of something a little more. I get what they were going for, and it should’ve been handled well, but it doesn’t pack much punch. It needed that extra something to push it over the line.
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.
2 1/2 Stars
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