Roger Michell, who made one of the very best Jane Austen adaptations with “Persuasion” in 1995, now takes on Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 period mystery, a best seller previously filmed by Henry Koster with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton (in his screen debut) in 1952. His new version of “My Cousin Rachel” is an elegant “Masterpiece Theatre”-style adaptation of the venerable tale, as smoothly seductive as its enigmatic heroine.
The question at the center of the story, set in early nineteenth-century England, is whether beautiful Rachel (played, appropriately, by another Rachel, Weisz) is a manipulative murderess using her feminine wiles to entrap unwary men or rather a misunderstood woman simply trying to survive in a man’s world. Michell sets the stage with a montage, with voiceover delivered by Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), about how he was taken in by his older cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin) after his parents’ death, and about the strong bond they developed over the years. When Ambrose fell ill, his doctor advised him to travel to Italy for the warm, sunny climate; and in Florence he met, fell in love with, and married Rachel. His letters to Philip, however, exhibited a severe decline in his relationship with his new wife, leading to the suspicion that she was poisoning him. By the time Philip rushed to the continent to be with him, however, Ambrose was dead and Rachel was gone. Refusing to accept the explanation of Ambrose’s lawyer Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) that he died of a brain tumor, Philip is certain that Rachel had murdered him and vows revenge on her.
There is one catch, however: Rachel has inherited none of the Ashley wealth, which under the terms of the dead man’s only valid will is destined for Philip on his twenty-fifth birthday, when he is released from the guardianship of family friend (and his godfather) Kendall (Iain Glen). When Rachel comes to Cornwall, Philip is determined to take vengeance on the woman he believes was responsible for Ambrose’s death. On their first meeting, however, he is charmed by the decorous, sensitive Rachel, and it does not take long before he is completely besotted with her. Despite the misgivings of Kendall and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), as well as the family lawyer (Simon Russell Beale), Philip determines to turn over the entire inheritance to Rachel on his birthday, expecting that they will marry and share it happily.
Is this the scheme that Rachel has planned all along? Has she cunningly maneuvered an impressionable boy, whose only dealings with females have involved spunky Louise (who obviously has designs on him herself), into giving her what she was denied by her husband’s unchanged will? Or is she what she portrays herself as—a woman without means making her way as best she can? Certainly there is cause for suspicion, not only in the ways she appears to prod young Philip into making choices that will benefit her to his detriment, but in the suggestions from other sources that her past life has been notorious for profligacy and infidelity. When Rainaldi shows up in England, even enamored Philip cannot suppress his concern. And what about that peculiar tea she keeps insisting that he drink?
Many of the quibbles one might raise about “My Cousin Rachel” from a plot perspective, however, can be resolved simply by remembering that the tale is told entirely from Philip’s perspective, and he is not what one might call a terribly perceptive, or entirely reliable narrator. Indeed, as Claflin portrays him, he appears psychologically unstable from the very first, and as the story progresses the actor twitches and squints rather too readily to depict not only poor Philip’s obsessive devotion to his cousin but his ineptitude in dealing with women at all, let alone one so sophisticated in presenting herself to the world as Rachel.
Weisz, meanwhile, masterfully conveys Rachel’s apparent calculation, subtly using modest gestures to raise questions about her motives while being unafraid to resort to more extravagant reactions when warranted. The caveat, of course, is that the film “reads” everything she says and does through the prism of Philip’s eyes, inevitably leading the viewer to interpret her demeanor as he does. Weisz seems to have appreciated that fact, and, in collaboration with Michell, molds the performance accordingly. The result is a canny exercise in manipulation of the audience as skilled as the one that du Maurier’s Rachel is presumably practicing on Philip.
Glen, Graingar, Favino and Beale—along with Tim Barlow, as Philip’s gruff old servant Seecombe—all provide excellent support, and the physical production is fastidiously managed, with Alice Norrington’s production design, Dinah Collin’s costumes and Barbara Herman-Skelding’s set decoration offering a wealth of period detail and cinematographer Mike Eley taking lush widescreen advantage of the fabulous Cornwall locations. Rael Jones’ score, moving artfully between romantic exhilaration and tones of menace, proves a fine complement to the visuals.
Faithful as it is to du Maurier’s book (with a few exceptions, most notably in the mode of the concluding twist), Michell’s “My Cousin Rachel” might seem sedate, even creaky, to modern viewers brought up on more overtly exciting fare. But to those tired of films that try to pummel them into submission, it will represent a welcome return to the days when dramatic restraint, studied ambiguity and a gradual buildup of tension were qualities that were prized rather than despised. Old-fashioned it might be, but satisfyingly so.