The writings of Daphne du Maurier have yielded some great movies, two of them — “Rebecca” and “The Birds” — part of the upper echelons of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. But there are less glossy entries, namely the 1952 Richard Burton-Olivia de Havilland sudser, “My Cousin Rachel.” Never heard of it? That’s likely because it long ago got lost in the shadow of “Rebecca,” which earned an Oscar for de Havilland’s older sister, Joan Fontaine.
Now, along comes Roger Michell, the writer-director responsible for under-the-radar gems like “Changing Lanes” and “Notting Hill,” and unmitigated duds like “Hyde Park on Hudson” and “Morning Glory.” Like me, he believes in the logic of if you’re going to remake a movie, don’t pick a classic; pick a bad or marginal one you think you can improve upon. So, Mr. Michell, meet Ms. Du Maurier; see what you can come up with in turning her 19th-century tale of love and woe into a 21st-century contender.
How’d it turn out? Let’s just say it isn’t what you’d hope, but not as drab as you’d expect. First, the good stuff. That’s Rachel Weisz, taking over from de Havilland in the role of Rachel Ashley, the Rachel of the title. On the outside, she looks prim and proper, with a gentle sense of humor and a demure smile that turns men to putty. But as one observer informs us: “She has appetites.” And we’re not talking about food. Not unless you consider her a shark sniffing for blood in a sea of gullible men like her wealthy cousin, Ambrose. He traveled from Cornwall to her hometown of Florence to cure his ailment and wound up dead. But was the cause the brain tumor listed on the death certificate? Or, was it his new wife, Rachel, as Ambrose’s young ward, Philip, believes? Considering Burton picked up his first Oscar nomination for playing Philip, one might expect Sam Claflin (“Me before You”) to make the most of a showy role. No dice. He’s got the looks, but none of Burton’s gravitas. But he is more believable as the naive babe in the woods Du Maurier envisioned, thus making it more credible he would chase after the worldly Rachel like a love-starved puppy. She takes full advantage. But, is she the murderer Philip initially believes her to be? Or the dishy fox he instantly falls for when she arrives in England. That’s the crux of a movie that evolves into a tame game of cat and mouse, as Michell sincerely attempts to make us wonder who’s tricking who through the poison tea leaves. But there’s never any doubt it’s Rachel calling all the shots, robbing the movie of even a modicum of suspense.
It also doesn’t help that you long to see the story more from Rachel’s perspective than Philips’, mostly because she’s more interesting, as are her motives in toying with the young man who is more than a decade her junior. After all, she’s the meat du Maurier wants us to devour in a 19th-century tale that — much like Jane Austen — reveals women as second-class citizens denied independence unless they amass a fortune. And the only way to do that in a male-dominated society is to lie, connive and cheat.
To Michell’s credit, he leaves it to us to decide whether Rachel is the charmer she appears to be, or the she-devil Philip’s godfather, Nicholas (Iain Glen), and his daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger) are convinced she is. But then their view is jaundiced by the fact that they see themselves becoming Philip’s wife and father-in-law after he inherits all of Ambrose’s estate when he reaches age 25 in a few days’ time.
How does it end? Not very satisfactorily, just like the book, leaving many a question unanswered. It’s a bit of a letdown, but it does trigger your senses of self-deduction. In other words, it’s for you to figure out. Still, the film looks sensational and the acting, except for Claflin, is pure bliss, with top kudos going to a hilarious Tim Barlow as Philip’s ridiculously stoic butler, Seecombe. His nose is appropriately bent and twisted, just like the events he watches transpire right under that schnoz. He, like us, can only shake his head and be glad he doesn’t have to protect the family jewels (both worn and attached) from people so idly rich they have nothing better to do than scheme and feel sorry for themselves. Such a life.
“My Cousin Rachel”
Cast includes Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin and Holliday Grainger.
(PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language)