“My Cousin Rachel” is Roger Mitchell’s uneven adaptation (veering between sluggish cautious restraint and gripping story telling) of the book by Daphne du Maurier. At its heart, this is a story about cultural blindness…about our inability to see beyond the locked box of our inherited values. Set in mid nineteenth century England, the drama is centered around the arrival of the eponymous cousin Rachel – an exotic, beautiful and mysterious Anglo-Italian widow – into a small, very traditional farming community.
Just who is this Rachel? Grieving widow -as she appears to be – or calculating, possibly murderous, fortune seeker – as she is made out to be? We meet her via the letters of a wealthy English landowner and die-hard bachelor, Ambrose Ashley (Sam Calflin of “The Hunger Games”). He has fled the cold (read: inhibited) country for the sultrier, healthier clime of Italy. His letters describe the arc of his relationship with this mystery woman: first as charming friend, then beloved wife, then suspicious partner who may be poisoning him. Which is she? Could she really be poisoning him or is this merely the expression of a deranged mind, warped by the tumour that kills him?
Ambrose’s young, gormless nephew, Philip (also played by Sam Calflin) who will inherit his properties when he turns twenty five, is convinced that his uncle has been murdered by her. His guardian, Nick (Iain Glenn, who you’ll know as Jorah Mormon from “The Game of Thrones”) has also heard things: her profligacy, her sexual appetites. When she turns up at the ancestral estate (she claims it is to experience the presence of her deceased husband), her veiled countenance and enigmatic smile offer nothing to her suspicious hosts. Young Philip is determined to lift what is clearly the veil of her guilt.
In a world where the women are either dowdy or delicately virginal and certainly entirely submissive, can you really trust someone as darkly beautiful, experienced and self-possessed as Rachel? And a foreigner to boot! She must be harbouring secrets. Just who is the Italian gentleman that visits her? A lover? To whom is she sending such large sums of money, well exceeding the modest income she is given?
Bit by bit he is bitten by her bewitching charm. She is the unexpected antidote to his buttoned up word. She is the dark to his light, the experience to his innocence, the possibility of passion to his sense of restraint, the smell of sex to the stuffiness of his virginity, the maturity to his naïveté. Surely she cannot be the witch some (no longer him) make her out to be. Not surprisingly, he loses his heart to her; and in a spasm of infantile infatuation, he wills her his wealth… in exchange for her hand. She offers him instead her body. It is a signal he misreads. What for her is a repayment for generosity, he mistakes for love.
She, of course, is no naïf. He may have misread her intent. But that could not have been a surprise to her. For what’s a woman without fortune to do in a society stacked against such a creature? She can teach or become a governess or, again, seek to marry well.
In the end, her attractiveness to Philip lies as much in her – to him incomprehensible- “otherness” as in her brooding sensuality. He is after all, no more than a horny boy.
At a deeper level, the story wonders what it takes for one cultural frame of reference (the English farming community) to fully appreciate and align with another’s (that of the sophisticated Italian). For on the flip side of exotic attraction lies a world of misunderstanding (and suspicion). And by the time his own veil of ignorance has been lifted and he comes to his senses, Philip has put in play a sequence of events that will eventually prove fatal.
That beautiful English countryside, like its inhabitants, becomes a place of hidden malevolence that must protect itself against the antibodies that would do it harm.
This is Rachel Weisz’ movie. She is its magnetic presence: quiet, understated, ultimately mysterious. We are as seduced by her even as we remain in doubt as to her real intentions. She personifies ambiguity. This is certainly proving to be Ms Weisz’ time: coming so soon after the magnificent “Denial” and “The Light Between Oceans”. Perhaps, just perhaps, Hollywood is becoming French in its appreciation of women of a certain age (After all, Ms Weisz, Nicole Kidman, Isabel Huppert, Laura Dern, Halle Berry, Meryl Streep, Diane Lane, Robin Wright etc have all turned 50; and they’re all getting great roles…well overshadowing the superhero-chained pufferies of Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence etc)
Roger Mitchell (“Notting Hill”) both adapted and directed the movie…which could have been outstanding; but he seems so cautious of excess that there is often a slow stateliness to the directing where you wish there were more raw energy.
No matter. Rachel more than compensates for his stately restraint.
MY COUSIN RACHEL. Dir: Ropger Mitchell. With: Rachel Weisz, Sam Calflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger. Cinematographer: Mike Eley ( (“Marley”). Production Designer: Alice Normington (“Suffragette”)