“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.” As he explicitly admits with his inclusion of the word “popular” in this quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams was far from the first social pundit to make this observation. But truisms, however trite-sounding, become truisms for a reason, and often bear deeper inspection. In this case, we find a gateway into the magic of cinema, which by its very nature is all about appearances, broadly splashed before our eyes – at least at first, until we get drawn in.
In some movies, that visual level of attack is all there is, and some viewers ask for no more. My Cousin Rachel isn’t that sort of movie. Its visual appeal is certainly lush, asprawl with wild horseback rides along the spectacular coast of Cornwall and a more claustrophobic but similarly gorgeous sojourn in an Italy populated more densely with marble statues than with flesh-and-blood Italians. If you have a weakness for travelogues, it’s worth seeing on that level alone. But what you get is much more than what you see.
The film is based on a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, who specialized in Gothic tales with unreliable narrators and heroines (or villainesses) who are both larger-than-life and morally ambiguous. Notably generous with atmosphere but parsimonious with explanations for characters’ behavior, her stories have proven irresistible candy to movie directors – thrice to Alfred Hitchcock alone (Rebecca, The Birds, Jamaica Inn). My Cousin Rachel has appeared on screens both big and small before, but stands up well to another treatment, this time directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson, Le Week-End).
Aside from those stunning Cornish clifftop vistas, this latest version’s power lies primarily in the able hands of Rachel Weisz in the title role. Alternately building layers of opacity and peeling them away with delicate nuance, she walks a neat tightrope between possible interpretations of the character: ambitious femme fatale or merely a wronged widow, “making her way in the world as she wishes.”
We see Rachel from the point of view of Philip (Sam Claflin), who has been raised by his cousin Ambrose in an upper-class English household almost entirely devoid of women. That an educated 24-year-old man of means should be so callow, naïve, inexperienced is the toughest pill that this story asks us to swallow. But it’s essential. Philip’s tunnel vision with regard to the feminine half of humanity makes him both highly susceptible to Rachel’s charms and paranoid of her motives.
At the outset, we find that longtime bachelor Ambrose has been summering in Italy for his health and recently married the mysterious woman of the title. Philip, his heir, begins receiving alarming, cryptic letters: Ambrose is becoming progressively more ill and suspects Rachel of poisoning him. By the time Philip arrives, intent on rescue, his cousin is dead and his widow absconded. The young man swears vengeance; but when beautiful, penniless Rachel shows up at the family manse back in Cornwall, he finds himself bedazzled, his assumptions crumbling, his resolve dissolving.
Philip’s advisors – his lawyer (Simon Russell Beale), his godfather Nick (Iain Glen), Nick’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) – are much more skeptical, especially when the financial allowance set aside for Rachel’s upkeep begins flowing out of the country at an alarming rate. But neither they nor the household servants nor the farmers who work the estate are immune to Rachel’s charms. Among the latter are her talent for brewing tisanas, traditional Italian medicinal draughts; and never did steaming cups of herbal tea loom so ominously onscreen. Is their bitterness the taste of betrayal, or merely experience?
This story is set in the 1830s, when options for women – even upper-class women – were few. Contemporary audiences can bring to it a more feminist sensibility than was likely to be found among those who saw the Richard Burton/Olivia de Havilland version when it hit the theaters in 1952, so in many ways it’s not the same movie. (It would be much different one if shown from the point of view of Rachel, or of Louise: both enticing alternatives.) But it’s constructed from the same sparse data set that du Maurier supplied in the original book, which left plenty of room for a canny director to tease the eye and the brain with speculations about who dun what – and on a more philosophical level, about the elusive nature of appearances and underlying realities.
Conclusion: My Cousin Rachel may not be the most satisfying costume epic of 2017, but it’s intriguing and worth a look. Like her fictional namesake, Rachel Weisz will get under your skin. And you may find yourself putting a holiday in scenic Cornwall in the foreseeable future on your to-do list, as well.