With a middlebrow swamp of a filmography that includes the (mostly) harmless likes of Hyde Park on Hudson and Notting Hill, Roger Michell is unlikely the first name one would consider for adapting a Daphne du Maurier novel. Like Patricia Highsmith, du Maurier is inextricably linked with Alfred Hitchcock. The cinematic titan afforded her canonical status for the source novels that would go on to produce Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds. That’s not to mention that Nicolas Roeg would go on to adapt one of du Maurier’s short stories for his canonical work, Don’t Look Now. In essence, her association with great auteurs and some of their most enduring works could be seen as something of a kiss of death for any filmmaker looking to adapt one of her stories. Du Maurier’s reputation has calcified into a sepia-tinted brand of lurid sophistication. Who’d want to go and muck that up?
My Cousin Rachel is by all accounts Roger Michell’s best film (I’ve seen but two) and a serviceable Daphne du Maurier adaptation. Set in Victorian-era England, the narrative centers on Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) coping with the news of the death of his beloved cousin Ambrose. A series of letters suggest that it was Ambrose’s cousin and wife Rachel (Rachel Weisz) who did him in. Her impending arrival to the Ashley estate inspires Phillip to take revenge, but he’s immediately smitten by Rachel’s timid and generous nature. Her arrival does arouse the suspicions of the townspeople, as it coincides with Phillip’s 25th birthday, when he will gain singular control of the Ashley estate and its fortunes.
The opening stretches of the picture are rough going, with Claflin’s pompous posturing coming across as especially false and forced. His distracting theatrics are prone to stretches of unintended humor but are thankfully reined in the moment that Weisz imposes her presence. Certainly one of the most reliable actresses on the planet, Weisz’ performance joins the ranks of Joan Fontaine and Tippi Hedron as the sort of galvanizing presences that originate from du Maurier’s text. Perpetually donning black lace, she embodies a phantom of mourning, her demeanor suggesting an inner calm even in deep activity. Darkness, as it were, wears more than one face and Weisz’ performance suggests a tumultuous balancing act between domestic servant and a woman with actual agency.
Michell’s adaptation thankfully (and somewhat bravely) softens the source novel’s preoccupations with whether or not Rachel murdered Ambrose and replaces it with a much more fascinating narrative on her social maneuvering. Rachel’s capacity to wrangle her way into Phillip’s social circles is a sinister delight that’s all the more rewarding given Phillip’s obtuse and naïve demeanor. Michell seems to be teetering your affections toward Phillip’s ignorance and youth, but an especially unexpected and powerful sequence in a bluebell-covered forest suggests just how dangerous unattended masculine vanity can become.
As a formal object, My Cousin Rachel is adept if not especially remarkable. Mike Eley’s exterior visual palette can at times seem bleached in sunlight, but the interiors, particularly candlelit sequences, are notably lush. Meanwhile, Rael Jones’ twitchy score eventually catches up with the thematic intentions of the film. My Cousin Rachel is by no means a great film, but it is a surprisingly good one, particularly given my reservation about its theatrical and unconvincing opening stretch. But as was the case with last year’s Complete Unknown, it’s Rachel Weisz as auteur that elevates the potentially maudlin into something notable. Michell may not possess the formal sophistication of Hitchcock or Roeg (and honestly, who does?), but with Weisz in tow, the two serve du Maurier exceedingly well.