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Categories: Movie Reviews

AD Cooper reviews the sumptuous costume drama to find out if My Cousin Rachel is indeed worth getting all hot and bothered about.

This film was seen at a pre-première screening followed by a Q&A with writer/director Roger Michell who provided insights in the production and his film making process.  Note: there are spoilers in this review.

A psychological costume thriller

Philip (Sam Clafin) an orphan is adopted by his cousin Ambrose and they live in considerable comfort in Ambrose’s Devon mansion. When his health fails, Ambrose goes off to Italy for the warm weather, leaving Philip to run the estate that he will inherit on his next birthday.

Ambrose’s letters talk of meeting another cousin, the widowed Rachel, and in what seems like a whirlwind romance, Ambrose marries her.  The letters become more erratic, and finally one arrives bewailing that Rachel is bleeding him dry of money. He also fears for his life and urges Philip to come to Italy. By the time Philip reaches Florence, Ambrose has died and Rachel disappeared. He meets Rainaldi, a friend of Rachel’s, who presents him with a death certificate showing Ambrose died of a brain tumour.

Returning to Devon, Philip learns that Rachel is coming and he deeply resents it. However, when Rachel (Rachel Weisz) arrives, she’s beautiful, charming and he’s quickly captivated.

In no time, she’s healing the local sick with her herbal infusions, and handing away Ambrose’s old clothes. She’s welcomed by Philip’s friends and settles into the house where she makes Philip drinks her ‘tisana’ infusions.

He becomes infatuated with her and she does everything to tease and entice. Despite strong objection from his godfather (Iain Glen in a role very like that in Game of Thrones) and his lawyer Mr Couch (Simon Russell Beale), Philip arranges to transfer all his wealth and the family jewels to Rachel.

Presenting Rachel with this gift on his birthday, they become lovers but when Philip announces publically that they are to marry, she rejects him.

Philip falls gravely ill and she nurses him back to health. But a whole combination of factors convince him that she is poisoning him with her infusions just as she poisoned Ambrose, that she’s having an affair with Rainaldi (who’s moved to England) and giving him all the money.  Half mad with jealousy and unhinged by her constant yet untouchable presence, he sends her in the way of danger – with tragic consequences.

“Did she? Or didn’t she?”

It’s the question that bookends the film, and the tight script gives you equal evidence to confuse and confound the viewer. This mechanic keeps you engaged throughout the film.

It’s a period romance/psychological thriller adapted from Daphne de Maurier’s novel. Director Roger Michell described it as “Post Freudian Austen” with modern psychology applied to an 1830 setting.

What intrigues is the relationship between Philip and Rachel, especially as it’s presented entirely from Philip’s viewpoint and he’s not the most reliable narrator. Both Weisz and Claflin are excellent, with Weisz combining elegance with inscrutability in the femme fatale role of Rachel.  Whether behind a impenetrable lacy veil or glittering in candle light, Weisz always looks the part while Claflin is well cast in the role of the man child (“wet-nosed puppy”) who falls in love/lust with someone old enough to be the mother he never had. His persistent infatuation is well done, even if you want someone to slap him back to sense towards the end.

Nice touches

It’s a beautifully made film with cinematographer/operator Mike Eley creating glittering candle-lit and shadowy interiors, luscious rolling landscapes and a real sense of life on a Devon estate nearly 200 years ago. The seasons and countryside are as much a character as Philip and Rachel.

The casting of the peripheral characters is well done – all of the farm workers and supporting cast had interesting character faces and believable attitudes. The most notable was the squashed nosed man servant (not listed by name on IMDB).

There’s an intriguing nightmare sequence when Philip is ill.  It reprises various parts of Philip’s story and looks very different from the rest of the film. Michell revealed that this was shot on a hand-cranked 35mm camera rather than the digital ARRI one used on the remainder.

There are nice turns of wit in the script to balance the gothic-ness, and enjoyable touches like the two leads’ horses having some kind of on-going squabble.

The production design by Alice Normington is outstanding with a great sense of decay and neglect especially on the interiors prior to Rachel’s arrival.

Niggles and irritations

The music by Rail Jones is beautiful but too loud and too intrusive. Some of it added to the suspense but often, it distracted.

The ADR was obvious – sometimes Philip would be at the back of a room in a shot but his voice was close making the sound perspective seem wrong as a result.

The sweeping Devon countryside was often shot on a drone, and this felt very post-Poldark over-familiar.  Galloping horses, flying coat tails, foaming sea roaring below vertiginous cliffs et al.  It may be part of the period, but let’s see something different.

Michell obviously gives us a modern view of 1830, and the random use of swear words surprised and felt inappropriate to the era especially from Louise (Holliday Granger), a society lady who’s in love with Philip. The make up and costumes were outstanding (widow’s weeds on Weisz looked both sexy and sinister), but there was way too much 2017 over-mascara’d sweeping eye lashes.

The sex scenes… all the build up of sexual tension with Philip about to explode with it, and then the image goes out of focus. This felt like a cheat, even a bit old fashioned Hay’s Office squeaminess.  And later there’s a dirty fumble in the bluebells nicked straight out of Ryan’s Daughter.

Director’s Notes

Roger Michell stumbled on the story whilst trying to find something to read that he didn’t want to make into a film. He presumed it would be chicklit but within two days of picking it up, he was on the phone to his producing partner Paul Loader and they tracked down the copyright to 20th Century Fox. A previous adaptation had been made in 1952, a year after the book was published, starring a very young Richard Burton opposite Olivia de Havilland.  An approach to Fox was made, and Fox Searchlight came on board very quickly as distributors.

Michell decided to adapt the novel himself, revelling in the ‘easy’ life of a scriptwriter.  This allowed him to pick and choose what elements to take from the 400-page book, and concentrate on the main relationship between Philip and Rachel.  The through question of “Did she? Didn’t she?” is worked through every scene as a mechanic to keep you guessing. Apparently Daphne du Maurier couldn’t decide herself.

Final verdict

It’s a watchable engaging film with handsome leads and twisting plot.  It reminds frequently of Poldark (shot in the next county) but it’s enjoyable because the narrator is unreliable and the resolution left for you to decide from the evidence provided.

My Cousin Rachel is out now in cinemas.

Posted on Jun 11, 2017

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