It’s an odd coincidence that this ‘re-adaptation’ of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel should arrive in UK cinemas so soon after Lady Macbeth. I went to see My Cousin Rachel with Nick and when we discussed the film in the pub afterwards we had almost the complete opposite reactions. I was slightly disappointed and certainly not as excited as I was by Lady Macbeth. Nick didn’t share my appreciation of Lady Macbeth but thought My Cousin Rachel worked. Perhaps he’ll add some comments here.
Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was a very popular writer of novels and short stories. She was often termed a ‘romantic novelist’, but that is a misleading term when thinking about the film adaptations of her work including the three Hitchcock films, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds as well as Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I was intrigued to see that her Wikipedia entry suggests that she had more in common with a writer like Wilkie Collins with his ‘sensation novels’. Certainly, My Cousin Rachel made me think of Collins, partly because of its convoluted family relationships and the importance of letters and wills. The story was adapted first in 1952, the year after the book was published with the intriguing pairing of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the two main parts. I haven’t seen that version but it appears to have been poorly received.
The story is set in the mid-19th century, perhaps the late 1830s (the year is not given in the film, that’s the time the book suggests). Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has grown up as an orphan and a ward of his cousin Ambrose. When Philip arrives back at the estate in Cornwall/Devon he learns that Ambrose has died in Tuscany where he had been spending time for his health and where he married another, distant, cousin. Philip will inherit the estate on his coming 25th birthday but before that event he is expecting Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his cousin’s widow to arrive from Italy. The estate is currently held in trust by the family lawyer (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Ambrose’s friend and godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen). Nick’s daughter Lucy (Holliday Grainger) was Philip’s childhood friend and she clearly has an interest in him. What will happen when Philip meets Rachel? Will he confirm his suspicions that she is a dangerous woman who perhaps caused Ambrose’s demise – or will the naïve young man quickly lose himself in infatuation?
This is a good set-up for an engaging narrative. The wild scenery (beaches, cliffs, crop fields close to the sea, woodlands etc.) suggests passion and romance and the large country house with dark stairways, servants hiding in the shadows etc. offers the possibility of the gothic and the narrative elements of film noir and melodrama. All of these were in Rebecca, albeit in the later period of the 1930s. But actually it is the mystery elements which tend to drive the narrative here and this is where the Wilkie Collins references come in. There is a mysterious will that Rachel possesses but which hasn’t been signed. Philip struggles with the legal documents that constrain his behaviour before his birthday. Letters written by Ambrose crop up at various points, discovered in clothes or books. (The relevant titles for Collins’ fans are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).)
The film offers us a vaguely Hitchcockian score by Rael Jones. The cinematography, production design and costumes are all very well presented and the performances are generally very good. I think my problem was that the presentation doesn’t go far enough in suggesting the possible dark side. Director Roger Michell wrote the script himself. He is an experienced director but seemingly a first-time scriptwriter. Perhaps he focused too much on writing a ‘faithful’ adaptation and not enough on exploring the genre possibilities? I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. Sam Claflin gives another solid performance, but I’m still not completely convinced that he is leading man material. I’m a big Rachel Weisz fan, but here her usual strong performance seems to lack something. Overall, I was most impressed with Holliday Grainger who stole most of the scenes she was in. I also enjoyed Tim Barlow’s performance as the ancient retainer Seecombe whose demeanour seems to poke fun at Philip. I think perhaps Michell and Claflin are not quite sure how to present Philip. Is he both the hunting shooting man on the moors and the shy naïve boy? We do see him topless with a toned gym-fit body (nullifying the authenticity of the costumes) in the house but when he leaps down to show his estate workers how to scythe hay there is no Poldark moment with the bare-chested leading man vigorously wielding the blade.
Rachel is often seen with her travelling case of herbs which she uses to produce the tisanes which might be poisoning Philip. Sometimes she appears vulnerable, but is she really seeking Philip’s protection? At other times she seems completely in control of her affairs and easily able to outmanoeuvre Philip. In a Guardian piece this weekend Julie Myerson recalls reading the novel as a teenager and seems to praise the film adaptation (“Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film”). She claims that Rachel’s vulnerability is what “makes her so terrifying to men”. I’m not sure I understand this. In Sight and Sound (July 2017) Lisa Mullen thinks the film works but that it “never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions”. I’d agree with that. She also thinks it’s unfair to make comparisons with Hitchcock. Why shouldn’t we? She ends: “Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama”. That seems fair enough. I’m left wondering why those two Wilkie Collins novels have never been adapted.
My Cousin Rachel seems to be working at the box office. Fox put it out on 467 screens for No 6 in the UK chart in its first weekend. By the following Tuesday, with older audience interest it moved into the Top 5. In the trailers below you can compare the leading performances. Richard Burton was just about the right age for Philip and this was his first leading role in a film.