Daphne du Maurier’s bleak novel, My Cousin Rachel, receives only its second cinematic adaptation since its 1951 publication, this 2017 retread serving as a long overdue update of a particularly enigmatic work.
Directed by the ever reliable Roger Michell, the film features a stylish cast, elegant photography and an atmosphere of mystery that goes some way to making this a genuinely affecting slice of period noir. A week after Wonder Woman's noisy release, My Cousin Rachel is a fable of female power anchored firmly within themes of erotic desire and deep-seated male fear of the fairer gender.
Set in the environs of coastal Cornwall, this centres not on its title character (Rachel Weisz) but on Sam Claflin's Philip Ashley, vigorous young master of a stately manor and orphaned ward of his beloved cousin, Ambrose (also Claflin).
When Ambrose dies during his convalescence in Florence, his widow, Rachel, ends up at Philip's door, beautiful, ghostly and entirely inscrutable. Given that in the cousins' correspondence Ambrose cast doubts on Rachel's intentions towards him, Philip is convinced that she hastened his death, a stance that soon softens when the grieving wife bewitches him.
The question of whether or not Rachel is a murderess – "Did she? Didn't she?" – comes and goes with Philip's mood, initially smitten, then possessive and, finally, again, suspicious. It drives the narrative, never far from the surface, Rachel's unknowable motivations always seeming to sit awkwardly with Philip's fumbling, entitled attempts to secure domestic bliss.
At the core of the tale, Weisz inhabits her role with aplomb. Undoubtedly the most complex character on show, Rachel's primary countenance is one of refinement. She is delicate and grounded, funny and undemanding, yet Weisz manages to convey an instability beneath it all, a sense of oddball unpredictability. Her endgame constitutes an ambiguous strand and it is to the credit of both Michell and his leading lady that this should feel so unsettling. As Rachel cheerily concocts continental tisanes, viewed by the locals with barely contained bafflement, hints of danger nibble at the outer edge of this story.
Claflin, on the other hand, fares less well. He carries off the haughty heir with minimal effort but misses in adding the layers necessary to compete with Weisz's enchantress. In painting Philip as the sort of breech-sporting youth unused to even the mere presence of women, Claflin comes off as smug, almost petulant. Where callowness is required, stupidity is the prevailing mood as he makes moves to sign over his fortune to a stranger.
As far as the supporting cast is concerned, proceedings are consistently garlanded by the always excellent Iain Glen. He offers refinement and loyalty as Philip's wealthy godfather-cum-guardian, at first charmed, then watchful and perturbed by the developing situation. Simon Russell Beale, meanwhile, is wonderfully restrained in the role of the family solicitor, undemonstrative but upright, whose language ("That's my job, to stickle.") delights. Holliday Grainger, too, stands out, alongside Weisz, as Philip's would-be paramour. Her calm wisdom is at odds with his puppy-like devotion to the new lodger, though, refreshingly, neither woman is pitched as a rival of the other.
If there exists a major sticking point, then it is in tone and setting. From Rebecca to the unerringly creepy Jamaica Inn, du Maurier's stories are grey and forbidding – hers is an oeuvre thick with ambience. It is puzzling, therefore, that Michell chooses to trade in those tropes for the rural idyll of Thomas Hardy. Instead of crashing waves and isolated moors, verdant pastures and forests ripe with bluebells flood the screen. Gorgeous as they are, such elements undermine the kernel of darkness so inherent to the du Maurier résumé.
More is the pity, for My Cousin Rachel is, on the surface, an accomplished picture. With a script delivering intense, occasionally earthy dialogue and no little style, Michell's film would have excelled if it had only focused on the tenets that made the source material soar.