Daphne Du Maurier’s mystery romance novel was first adapted for film in 1952, directed by Henry Koster. This version of the film received positive reviews as well as Academy Award nominations, but was unapproved by the author of the novel. Du Maurier declared that the script was “desperate” and untrue to the novel. Roger Michell’s 2017 version stays true to the novel, which begs the question: is it better to change the narrative of a book for a film adaptation?
The main issue with My Cousin Rachel is that there is no threat. The film is posed as a mystery thriller, with Sam Claflin’s Phillip suspecting Rachel Weisz’s Rachel of killing his beloved cousin to then become enchanted by her when they meet. When it feels like something dangerous is about to happen the threat quickly dissolves, and these sequences are usually edited and executed to build successful tension in a way that leaves you feeling disappointed when nothing happens.
The story never really feels thrilling and this is heightened by the fact that the titular character’s motives are never made clear. Did she kill Ambrose and is now trying to poison Phillip? Is she innocent and honestly in love with Phillip? The answers to these questions are never made clear, but not in a mysterious and chilling way, in a very confusing and frankly frustrating way. Rachel appears to be uncomfortable when she is with Phillip and when he falls ill, his hallucinations suggest that she is poisoning him with her Italian herbal teas whilst sleeping around with other men. However, Phillip and Louise discover in the end that there is nothing incriminating her and she might well be innocent. This is no shocking nor fantastic twist, just a sigh-inducing ending.
The film is crafted rather beautifully, with excellent cinematography that is supported by the beautiful locations of Cornwall and Florence, Italy. Director Roger Michell, who is mostly known for his 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill, is clearly a competent and talented director and he executes this film with a gothic style that enchants audiences for the majority of the picture. His direction sets up an interesting romantic atmosphere, particularly between the two central characters, that makes you wonder if he should have just made a romantic period drama instead.
My Cousin Rachel is definitely anchored by the performances of its two leads. Sam Claflin, who has proved his sincere acting talent with performances in Lone Scherfig’s films Their Finest and The Riot Club as well as an irresistible stint as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games franchise. In My Cousin Rachel, he first appears as a disagreeable and slightly misogynistic country boy who soon throws away most of his inhibitions once he meets Rachel, becoming supplicating and lovesick as well as the centre of pathos in the film. Claflin is brilliant and perfectly balances 19th century masculinity with authentic vulnerability. The most memorable scene of the film depicts Claflin and Weisz’s characters arguing over money that Claflin’s character has given to Weisz’s character. The scene is acted so brilliantly, proving how the two actors have a fierce hold over the whole film.
Rachel Weisz is also brilliant in the film. She plays her name twin in a way that paints her into a subtle yet effervescent villain, despite the unclear intentions of her character. Her character seems to have the ability to charm everyone she meets and shows so much vulnerability and compassion, all the while making audiences question her throughout the whole film as she possesses a certain unease behind her eyes.
My Cousin Rachel is a good film, but it deserves to be better. It’s anchored by stellar performances from Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz as well as stunning cinematography and location yet crippled by its faithfulness to the source material and lack of intensity. Roger Michell’s 2017 film is worth a watch but not a priority over some of the brilliant pictures of the summer.
My Cousin Rachel Result: B