Rachel Getting Harried

My Cousin Rachel
(UK/USA, 106 min.)
Written and directed by Roger Michell
Starring: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glenn, Holliday Grainger
Rachel Weisz My Cousin Rachel.
  Photo by Nicola Dove / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Dead wives and Daphne du Maurier go together like cake and ice cream. The haunting prose of the popular author is at its best in Rebecca, the story of the nameless second Mrs. de Winter living in the shadow of her husband’s widow, Rebecca. It’s a hypnotic Gothic story, but also perhaps the best example of a film being better than the book. Alfred Hitchcock’s spellbinding psychological thriller and ghost story is an eerie production that gets inside the head of its jittery protagonist (Joan Fontaine) as she braves the high bar set by her predecessor, survives the husband (Laurence Olivier) who might have killed Rebecca, and unravels under the presence of the loony housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Death and widows brew in a similar tempest in My Cousin Rachel, albeit without the weirdly sexual storm cloud of Mrs. Danvers.

The ghost of Rebecca haunts this respectable adaptation of du Maurier’s less frequently celebrated novel My Cousin Rachel. (There’s also an adaptation with Olivia de Havilland that isn’t nearly as popular as her sister’s Rebecca.) The chronology of this book and novel turns the dead into living ghosts as young Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) falls into a psychological abyss as he carries to his grave the question of whether the woman he desired poisoned the man who raised him. The insecurities of the second Mrs. de Winter have nothing on the doubts of the next Lord Ashley.

Like the second Mrs. de Winter stepping into her predecessor’s role, filling Rebecca’s shoes is a daunting task, but this adaptation does its best to avoid being the ugly stepsister to a classic work. Credit Rachel Weisz for giving a fascinating and mysterious performance that puts the audience under Rachel’s spell. She enlivens the film with dastardly playful class and danger in the title role. Rachel, decked out in dowdy mourning gear, is the walking dead, a devious seductress or, perhaps, a lonely lost soul.

The set-up of My Cousin Rachel inevitably makes the film all about Weisz’s performance as Philip speculates about her role in the death of his guardian and benefactor, Ambrose Ashley. He plots revenge by seeking the truth of the matter with plans to get Rachel all flustered and harried until she confesses and earns her comeuppance. Rachel doesn’t enter the picture for at least 20 minutes—like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, this adaptation does a considerable job of expediting du Maurier’s rambling prose since the book keeps Rachel at bay for a sizable chuck of exposition—and Philip’s fragile psyche builds her up as a murderous black widow before we even meet her.

Philip keeps egging on Rachel with passive aggressive inquiries  while evidence mounts that she probably didn’t bump off Ambrose Ashley. Weisz’s Rachel is far more interesting a character than Claflin’s Philip is, and the actress a much stronger performer than the younger co-star, so each addition to the mystery of Rachel—her reckless spending, her mustachioed Italian friend, and her pungent herbal teas—makes her a fuller and more dynamic character while Philip regresses into a one-dimensional boob. Director Roger Michell (making the second entry in the why-can’t-I-marry-my-cousin trilogy after Hyde Park on Hudson) lets Weisz take control when Philip submits to Rachel’s charm. She seduces us with the mystery of the villainess's intentions in this restrained psychological drama.

The element of restraint is tight like a corset, though, and Michell’s faithfully demure adaptation needs the blood to match Weisz’s performance. My Cousin Rachel is often slow and plodding as Philip becomes drunk by Rachel’s presence, and it hinges on the same mystery of whether Rachel poisoned the late Ambrose Ashley, which can only sustain itself for so long. Michell does little to enhance the dark atmosphere aside from tasking Weisz with casting a spell and while it’s a handsomely composed production with attractive period trappings and costumes, it’s a little one note. Death lingers everyone in the film, as it often does when bringing du Maurier to the screen, and Weisz’s performance aside, this adaptation follows the trend since Rachel is just as stiff as Rebecca. (No italics on the latter.)

Weisz’s Rachel is, in many ways, a reinvention of the Rebecca we never meet in du Maurier’s superior work: her ambiguously beguiling performance entrances with its hypnotic blend of compassion, inquisitiveness, poise, and menace. Her presence commands the screen and watching young Master Philip slowly wrap himself around Rachel’s finger is akin to falling victim under hypnosis. She simply entrances in this performance.