Is it a mystery? A thriller? A romance? Yes, yes, and you be the judge. Anyway, the actual opening lines of the film, narrated off-screen, are more interesting than those questions: “Did she?” “Didn’t she?” “Who’s to blame?”
This third film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel “My Cousin Rachel” (the first theatrical one came out the year after it was published; the second, a BBC min-series, was in 1983) is a big, swirling, lush one, spread out over vast, sweeping countryside settings and within dark and dank homes.
It’s the mid-19th century story of Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), a well-to-do, though rather naive man, orphaned when he was young, raised by his older cousin Ambrose on an English farm/estate, living a sheltered life that had no women around while he was growing up.
Returning to the estate after college, he finds that Ambrose has fallen ill and, under the advice of doctors, has gone to live in the better climate of Italy. Written correspondence between Ambrose and Philip reveals that Ambrose has finally met the love of his life, a woman named Rachel, and he’s going to marry her. Other letters follow, of a darker nature. One suggests that she’s not the woman he thought she was, that she might have done him wrong. Another, likely in capital letters, says, “COME QUICKLY!”
Too late. By the time Philip arrives, Ambrose is dead, and Rachel has left. A brief chat with Rachel’s dapper, ever-smiling lawyer Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), who tells him that she’s “a woman of very strong impulses,” along with the cryptic contents of those letters, sets Philip on a path of mistrust toward Rachel. He’s never met her, but he’s convinced that she caused harm to her uncle and that she’s after his money ... and he decides to have his vengeance upon her.
A few factoids: Philip doesn’t know anything about women. He’s 24 and will take over Ambrose’s estate when he’s 25. According to Nick (Iain Glen from “Game of Thrones), who is Philip’s godfather and guardian of the estate till he comes of age, Rachel isn’t even mentioned in Ambrose’s will, so there’s no cause for retribution. Nick is supposedly the spitting image of Ambrose when he was younger.
Learning that Rachel is on her way to England to see her late-husband’s place, Philip works himself into a frenzy of hatred toward her. Until they meet.
One of the film’s numerous great acting moments occurs as Rachel (Rachel Weisz) is introduced onscreen. She’s silently taken aback at the Philip/Ambrose resemblance that’s been hinted at. His reaction, another great acting moment, is one of befuddlement. This charming older woman is not the monster he expected.
She’s a real mystery, to everyone. She casually mentions that she’s very short on funds, but has a job to get by. Philip suddenly wants to give her an allowance from his cousin’s account. Nick doesn’t think this is a good idea, and so a wedge comes between the two men. Philip starts falling for her but she keeps him at arm’s length. She plants a quick kiss on him then tells him to go away, and he’s flummoxed. She rides off on her white horse every day, leaving him brooding at home, never saying where she’s going. The arrival in England of the dashing Rainaldi — “Oh, he’s just an old friend,” she says — makes Philip a little crazier.
The ambiguity surrounding Rachel grows. How can she be so nice, then in a flash, so nasty? Is she after the money that Philip is about to inherit? Is she playing him for a fool? Were the warnings sent by Ambrose in those letters based on reality? And what’s in that special tea she keeps brewing? Who exactly is this liberated, free-thinking outsider?
The allure of the story is that you can’t be completely sure about anything. Except that it all looks to be heading toward a tragic ending, one that’s still filled with questions, the same ones from the beginning: “Did she?” “Didn’t she?” “Who’s to blame?”
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
“My Cousin Rachel”
Written and directed by Roger Michell
With Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Pierfrancesco Favino