Film Review: My Cousin Rachel

A perfect antidote to the surfeit of noisy summer releases, this period mystery is stunningly well done.
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From Daphne du Maurier's intriguing Gothic romance My Cousin Rachel, writer-director Roger Michell has fashioned a sweepingly good and hauntingly enigmatic movie yarn, which should satisfy all lovers of this deathless genre, absent from the screen for some time now.

Despite its title, the movie is really about its haunted narrator, Philip (Sam Claflin), orphaned in childhood and taken in by his cousin Ambrose, to whom he becomes very close. For health reasons, Ambrose goes to Florence and, while there, he meets a woman, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and marries her. Instead of wedded bliss, however, his letters to Philip become filled with accounts of his health failing, Rachel's controlling dominance in his life, and a strange Italian named Rainaldi forever lurking around her.

Phillip dashes to Italy, but when he gets there, he is informed by Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) that Ambrose has died and Rachel has disappeared. As Ambrose never changed his will in her favor, Philip remains sole heir to his considerable estate. Then news of Rachel being in England surfaces and Phillip invites her to stay with him. He is immediately attracted to her, but more letters from Ambrose keep popping up unexpectedly, with dreadful suggestions that not only is Rachel money-mad and madly extravagant, but she may have poisoned Ambrose as well. Philip is enflamed with love nonetheless, so when he attains his fortune on becoming 25, he transfers the entire estate to Rachel, after which he makes love to her. But when he proposes marriage to her, she demurs, setting off a chain of dark events that cause suspicion of her true nature to grow in his (and the audience’s) mind.

Starting with an aerial view of those famed seaside cliffs of Cornwall, which also provided the tantalizingly wind and sea-swept setting of du Maurier’s celebrated Rebecca, the film, photographed by Mike Eley, is an immediate and constant visual treat, gorgeously designed with a perfect period sense and greatly abetted by Rael Jones’ powerful music score which is almost like an essential additional character, deeply stirring but never intrusive. Michell’s skill in evoking the perfect atmosphere of hushed yet creeping suspense while eliciting intensely committed performances from his entire cast is impressive; you may find relief in the knowledge that the art of contemplative and graceful storytelling has not been entirely lost in this explosively violent, cartoonish modern age.

Claflin (The Hunger Games) throws himself into the role of Philip with a brazenly ardent fervor which makes him one of the screen’s great romantic heroes, fit to stand alongside Olivier’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights or Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. It’s not easy to convey the proper sort of innocence and receptiveness to love which make up Philip without emerging as an utter fool, but such is Claflin‘s wholly immersive passion that you empathize with him completely. Weisz, who came a cropper in the plum role written by Terence Rattigan for The Deep Blue Sea—admittedly botched by Terence Davies’ wrongheaded direction—is perfect as Rachel, at once puzzlingly perverse, highly sensual and yet controlled, in a steely manner that makes you marvel at the contrast. Besides a few shockingly explosive dramatic moments, she also provides, in spades, her character’s essential quality, mystery, something which a too-sweet Olivia de Havilland so sorely lacked in the 1952 film version—and which made original director George Cukor drop out of the project, muttering, “She is an actress without a secret.” (He had previously approached both Garbo and Vivien Leigh to do it, and was refused by both of them, with the Lonely Swede saying, “I could never be Cornish.”)

Simon Russell Beale as a concerned lawyer and Iain Glen as Philip’s deeply worried godfather Kendall both fill their parts with color and verve, but Holliday Grainger, as Kendall’s daughter Louise, quietly in love with Philip, is a real standout, porcelain-faced and fittingly demure, yet unshakably strong and inwardly seething with thwarted desire. And a shout-out goes to Tim Barlow, as a crotchety old houseman who, in classic servile tradition, makes you smile at his every gruff, grousing appearance.

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