When we first meet Rachel (Weisz), she is holding a cup of tea. We cut to a close-up of the cup, and are immediately reminded of Hitchcock’s Notorious. But unlike Notorious, in which Hitchcock closes in on the cup to tell us that, yes indeed, there is something in the coffee, My Cousin Rachel is more ambiguous. Roger Michel’s new film is a pseudo-gothic romantic mystery in which something may or may not be going on. There have been a few of those recently, most notably del Toro’s Crimson Peak and Park’s The Handmaiden. My Cousin Rachel, unfortunately, doesn’t have the wherewithal or the guts to match its contemporaries.
Based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel is set on a country estate in whatever time costume dramas tend to be set. Philip (Sam Claflin), an orphan, is the ward of Ambrose Ashley and the heir to his estate. After taking ill, Ambrose leaves for Florence to convalesce, and Philip learns through his letters that Ambrose has met and fallen in love with his cousin Rachel. Subsequent letters are less cheery; Ambrose believes Rachel to be tormenting him and driving him to his death. Indeed, when Philip goes to Florence he finds Ambrose deceased and Rachel fled. Philip develops a deep-seated grudge against Rachel, and plans revenge. Until, that is, Rachel turns up in England and Philip meets her.
Predictably, Philip becomes smitten. It isn’t surprising: Weisz’s Rachel is wryly charming and charmingly wry, with a touch of a widow’s vulnerability and a dash of the mother Philip never had. What does come as a surprise (at least for those of us who haven’t read the novel, or seen the 1952 film) is how Rachel subverts our expectations. The film has some fun playing with the idea of woman as temptress and corruptor. There are twists and turns and we ask ourselves: is Rachel a murderous golddigger? Is she an innocent widow? As Philip mutters in the narration that opens and closes the film, “Did she? Didn’t she?”
Thing is, none of this really seems to matter. There are scant few revelations, and none of those pack any real punch. Instead, this is a film of ephemeral allusions and fleeting suspicions, communicated by averted glances and pregnant silences. There is little energy to My Cousin Rachel. It plods along, dropping the occasional titbit, then rather unceremoniously comes to an end.
The film almost hums to life when exploring Philip and Rachel’s pseudo-incestuous relationship. Rachel is cousin to Philip’s cousin, which is probably legal, but that isn’t what interests this film. It’s the strange, creepy mother-son romance that fascinates. After sharing a brief late-night kiss, Rachel tells Philip to run off to bed “like a good boy.” For Christmas, Philip gives Rachel the necklace his mother wore on her wedding day, and the significance is obvious (to us, at least). But, as with the central mystery, this bizarre relationship never has a chance to go anywhere interesting. It’s a sideshow, something to keep us entertained when the plot slows down.
All of this is sumptuously photographed by Mike Eley. There are beautiful shots throughout My Cousin Rachel, with even simple conversations a treat to look at. Sumptuous photography and beautiful shots can save an otherwise lacklustre production, but unfortunately My Cousin Rachel’s aren’t quite sumptuous or beautiful enough. Crimson Peak is barely two years old, and its ghost still haunts this genre. My Cousin Rachel doesn’t have the inventiveness that del Toro’s sublimely crafted film had, and with a plot that fails to gather momentum it ends up feeling flat.