Whatever it was that possessed Roger Michell, the director of the romantic comedies Notting Hill and Morning Glory, to write and direct a new screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel of the same title, does not come through in this movie. One would think that a strong new vision of an existing work would be the reason compelling a filmmaker to wade into its slipstream, but if Michell had a vision that involved an update of the largely forgotten 1952 Hollywood version (which starred a very young Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, sister of Joan Fontaine, who had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s very successful adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca) or a change of perspective on that film and its numerous productions in other media formats, that inspiration has been lost in his new version. My Cousin Rachel (2017) retreads du Maurier’s luscious mix of Gothic trappings and psychological mystery, but it’s a wan concoction that’s never fully convincing or engaging.
The film tells the story of Philip Ashley (Claflin, of The Hunger Games and Their Finest), who was orphaned as a child and then taken in and raised by his cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin). Philip adores his cousin, who raises the boy in an all-male household on a rugged, country estate where peasants are often seen working the land with scythes. Philip returns to his guardian’s estate after attending college, admitting in the effective voiceover used to set up his early history, that he has no affinity for books. When Ambrose turns ill, he goes to Italy to recover, as was the custom in those days. Philip receives letters from Ambrose telling of delightful times spent with his cousin Rachel, whom he eventually weds. Soon, Ambrose’s letters turn darker, remarking on his inability to bear the sun and the onset of terrible headaches, as well as expressing fear of Rachel’s constant surveillance of him. Ambrose refers to her as “Rachel my torment.” Philip travels to Italy to check in on Ambrose, only to learn that he has died and that Rachel has left the premises. Rachel, who of course is also Philip’s cousin, becomes the young man’s sworn enemy, viewed by him as the killer of his idolized guardian Ambrose.
Although much discussed, Rachel (Weisz) makes her first physical appearance about a quarter way into the film, when she comes to visit Philip in England at the estate he will now inherit upon turning 25. However, Philip’s initial hatred and inhospitality quickly melts into enchantment, leaving open the question of whether she is a man-killer or pitiful widow. Philip’s switch from hatred to infatuation occurs too rapidly to be believable, although who knows what’s really in those herbal infusions Rachel keeps forcing him to drink. Michell plays scenes so that viewers can read anything into them they desire, yet never know for certain the truth of the matter. Philip is callow and impetuous, more hysterical than tormented, and certainly no psychological match for Rachel. But is she a merry widow or a disenfranchised woman in a world of landed gentry? Michell never fully delves into that aspect of du Maurier’s text. My Cousin Rachel often feels like a head-scratcher for all the wrong reasons.
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