My Cousin Rachel takes another crack at adapting Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name – the novel was published in 1951 and filmed a year later in a version featuring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland.
The new version stars Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz in a handsome, faithful but dated mystery-romance – poison tea, cliffs that give way on cue, thunderclaps that arrive at the same instant as the movie’s title.
Claflin actually plays two roles: the orphaned Philip and (briefly) the wealthy, kindly cousin Ambrose, who raises him before taking a long vacation in Italy, where he falls for a half-English, half-Italian woman named Rachel (Weisz), whom Ambrose impulsively marries and who nurses him through a fatal illness.
Near the end, Philip receives troubling letters from his de facto father, accusing Rachel of neglect, or something worse. So Philip travels to Italy to confront the woman, only to find her absent.
Back in England, he busies himself with the administration of Ambrose’s enormous estate, one that he’s officially to inherit when he turns 25 (no provision was made for Rachel). He also broods over Ambrose’s death, and just plain broods. He’s a bit of a dark cloud, this guy. He has a mystifying lack of interest, for instance, in the pretty, eligible young woman (Holliday Grainger) who bats her eyes at him.
His mood worsens, if that’s possible, when news arrives that Rachel is in town and planning a visit. Revenge-minded Philip plans an elaborately cold reception — he intends to denounce and shame her, perhaps extracting a confession of murder.
These plans evaporate when they actually meet. Philip is 24 but emotionally still a boy. Rachel is a beautiful, seasoned woman of the world and, as the movie keeps mentioning, half Italian — a silly euphemism here for sexually active.
“She is a woman of passionate appetites,” Philip is told by an Italian man who winks when he says it, so you know he’s not talking about pasta. Her skill set gives her an advantage over poor Philip, whose wealth has not insulated him from virginity.
He falls in love with her in about five minutes. The question posed in the movie — is she manipulating Philip? – is served with a heaping side of red herrings. Another will is floating around, Rachel is meeting secretly with her Italian adviser, Philip is getting sick, poison herbs are found in the garden.
Through it all, he pursues his infatuation with Rachel, who indulges it, leading to an awkward sex scene that is, well, not Italian at all. What is she up to? Probably a more interesting question in 1951. Writer-direct Roger Michell (Notting Hill) gives it a slightly modern, feminist spin, asking us to consider that Rachel, a disinherited 19th-century widow, had few options, none of them good.
Even, or especially, if you were half Italian.
My Cousin Rachel
Directed by: Roger Michell. With Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Holliday Grainger, Andrew Knott and Iain Glen. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (some sexuality, brief strong language).
Playing at: Ritz East, AMC Voorhees 16, UA King of Prussia, Bryn Mawr Film Institute.