My Cousin Rachel : Adequate, but Not Memorable?

Directed by Roger Michell
Fox Searchlight, 106 minutes, PG-13

"Did she? Didn't she? Who's to blame?" These words appear at the beginning and end of the latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel. The 1952 film stored Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. Talk about big shoes to fill! Happily Rich Weisz is up to the task of the role of Rachel Ashley, and Sam Claflin is fine as Philip. On a less exciting note, the film is decent but is more of a passing thought than a lingering presence.

The setting is 19th century Cornwall. Philip has just left university with the revelation that he cares nothing for books, the wider world, or clever banter. It's the rural life for him. Philip is an orphan, but a lucky one whose cousin Ambrose acted as a surrogate father. Alas, family news is not good. Ambrose has gone off to Italy, where he married a young wife named Rachel. Shortly thereafter, Ambrose took seriously ill. By the time Philip arrives in Florence, his the cousin has died, news delivered in an offhand manner by Rinaldi (Pier Franceco Favino), an Italian man cleaning up affairs at the empty villa, to whom Philip takes an instant dislike. He's a bit rash, our young Philip—a sort of impetuous man-boy.

Back in Cornwall, Philip is now master of the estate, a role disturbed when he begins to find cryptic and desperate notes among Ambrose's effects suggesting that Rachel is to blame for his demise. Was she? Or was it a brain tumor? Philip is convinced that she is to blame and wishes to avenge his cousin–until Rachel shows up in Cornwall and he is the smitten. This is much to the chagrin of young Louise Kendall (Holliday Granger) who has loved Philip since both were children.

Rachel proceeds to remake the dreary estate, often overspending her allowance. Philip doesn't mind. In fact, he hopes to marry her when he turns 25 and has complete control over his affairs. But does she want such a rash, immature partner? The situation is complicated by the fact that Rachel allows him to possess her sexually on the eve of his important birthday. Does she desire him? The estate? Or is she just being Continental? And why does Rinaldi keep showing up? Is Rachel's outward goodness her true character, or is it her fiery anger that occasionally boils to the surface?

Some of Philip's closest associates–his lawyer and his godfather (Iain Glenn, Sir Jorah in Game of Thrones)–warn Philip to curb his infatuation, but is he too far gone to heed them? What are we to make of the sudden turn for the worse in Philip's health? Is the tea Rachel gives him an herbal cure, or is she slowly poisoning him? Is she, perhaps, a witch?

All of this resolves and, in the end, makes sense, but with the impact of a pulled punch. The film is a sort of mash up of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1949), Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen. Like a lot of pastiche, it's like a copy of a copy. None of this is to say that My Cousin Rachel is a bad film; it's just one that leaves us with the vague feeling that it should have been better. Ultimately, it feels like a costume drama whose major cinematic virtue is the wild Cornish seacoast. Otherwise, it would have been a good Masterpiece Theatre offering.

Rob Weir

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