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My Cousin Rachel review: a superannuated tale of romance and murder

June 8, 2017

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Cormac O'Brien


Notting Hill director Roger Michell’s comes to the silver screen again; brandishing all the associated charm, drama and sumptuous décor of the never out-of-vogue BBC costume drama.

Swapping impossibly popular teen sci-fi for a 19th Century makeover, Sam Claffin (The Hunger Game’s Finnick Odair) plays orphaned igenue Philip, who becomes heir to large country house following the death of his guardian Ambrose. However, this being a Daphne DuMaurier adaptation, soon the even keel of wholesome country living becomes darkly complicated. A frantic letter written in Ambrose’s last days arrives, accusing his newly wed wife ‘cousin’ Rachel (Rachel Weisz) of poisoning him and Philip vows revenge “Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it.”

However, when the seductive widow Rachel returns from Italy donned in funeral garb, having being left penniless by merit of Ambrose’s will, Philip instead quickly becomes enamoured with her.

Soon the likelihood that she’s also poisoning the lovestruck Philip seems probable. He has become increasingly bedridden with intense blackouts while Rachel’s strange Italian heritage, and constantly proffered herbal teas, place her markedly out of odds with yesteryear’s pastoral Britain. But much like Philip’s, our narrative expectations consistently switch, who either in the throes of suspicion or amorous intention at various points plans to marry Rachel, transfer the land to her or do away with her once and for all.

Keeping Du Maurier’s sometimes superannuated tale of romance and murder within the confines of modern drama for Michell proves an ambitious undertaking. It’s frequently difficult to warm to the doltish and juvenile Philip and the overspun mystery of Rachel’s morality, gong-sounded in his fervoured narration, often wears a little thin. Stupidity being the enemy of sentiment, perhaps the most important question ultimately is whether we care or not? Who the real villain is? Or in 2017 are we rooting for Rachel?

It’s a very entertaining and brooding lark, throughout, please don’t misunderstand! But My Cousin Rachel’s gothic structure becomes a little unwieldy under today’s scrutiny, and the polarised Hitchcockian preoccupation with ‘good wives’ and ‘femme fatales’, isn’t the compelling mystery it once was. Happily in what’s an almost inverted take on one of Du Maurier’s other favoured novels, Rebecca, this time, the first Mrs de Winter is allowed more than just a foreboding ghostly presence and instead is given reign to wander forebodingly through almost every scene.

And Rachel Weisz’s does this impeccably well, bringing portent and an ever-present aesthetic of mystery in abundance, sometimes with just an arch of her brow.

My Cousin Rachel is in cinemas from June 9. 

Words by Cormac O’Brien