Despite its title, “My Cousin Rachel” is not a family comedy set over a Bat Mitzvah weekend in New Jersey, though it might yield similar audience demographics. Rather, it is a moody period romance from “Notting Hill” director Roger Michell starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin, and one of a diminishing breed of mid-budget studio dramas.
Of course, the title wouldn’t have been so funny when the novel came out in 1951, written by Daphne du Maurier. The twentieth century British author and playwright’s work has inspired many great films over the years, including Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (1973), starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, as well as two from Alfred Hitchcock (“Rebecca” and “The Birds”). Lesser known is 1952 version of “My Cousin Rachel,” starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Though classified as a romance novelist, her stories are more about the darker side of love and its obsessive qualities, with supernatural elements contributing to their mystery.
Those supernatural overtones come through in “My Cousin Rachel” by way of Rachel’s (Weisz) tisanas, home-brewed herbal tinctures she serves up to Philip (Claflin) and his elder cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin). She says the tisanas are meant to fix various ailments, but Philip ends up with paralyzing headaches, while Ambrose ends up actually dead. Philip’s emerging (and understandable) uncertainty surrounding Rachel’s witch-like tendencies drive the film to its tragic conclusion.
Michell tells Philip’s back story in a brief flashback, explaining in voiceover that he was orphaned as a child and raised by his cousin Ambrose, who loves him like a son. As Philip matures and heads off to university, Ambrose retires to Italy for the sun, but the two maintain frequent correspondence. Through these letters, Philip learns that Ambrose has married an Italian woman (and distant cousin) named Rachel, who brings him great joy. Gradually, his letters become more concerning as Ambrose suspects that Rachel is poisoning him. By the time Philip reaches the Italian villa, Ambrose is dead and Rachel is nowhere to be found.
Indignant, Philip returns to Ambrose’s Cornwall estate, convinced Rachel has murdered his beloved cousin. He rages about “this Rachel woman” to his godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and his daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), who clearly nurses affection for Philip. When Rachel arrives, however, Philip’s loathsome attitude toward her changes quite suddenly. Not only is she lovely and engaging, but she seems genuinely bereft by the loss of her husband. What’s more, he learns the estate reverts entirely to him on his twenty-fifth birthday, with no provision for Rachel in the will. As his godfather points out, “What possible motive could she have with nothing to gain from his death?”
With his boyish good looks and distinctly British teeth, Claflin recalls a young Hugh Grant, when his floppy hair and bumbling charm were still de rigueur. His switch from vengeful brute to lovesick puppy, while played with utmost commitment, robs the film of the balanced tension necessary to keep the momentum. Michell stops and starts Philip’s suspicions about Rachel so abruptly that he foregoes all the ominous potential of an unsettling undercurrent.
Philip’s unraveling — and Rachel’s irritating composure in the face of it — are enjoyable to watch, especially against the gorgeous backdrop of the Cornwall seaside. Cinematographer Mike Eley’s camera soaks up every last drop of the soaring cliffs and dusty old manors, framing Philip in darkened doorways or through the bars of a banister. Philip is visually trapped by the cage of his obsession, as he seeks to leave the estate to Rachel (and perhaps earn further affection from his largesse).
Weisz successfully carries the slightly older part, and it is good to see her continuing to land leads at a time when many actresses tend to fall off the map (or get pushed aside). But even as “My Cousin Rachel” gives Weisz prominence, the character remains a mystery to Philip, requiring the story to squarely focus on Philip and his infatuation. Her interior life obscured, she can only show so many sides, and only appear in so many scenes. But Michell does allow her one peek behind the curtain, in a rousing outburst about the impossible nature of being independent as a woman at that time.
The moody period romance will appeal to older moviegoers, the group most responsible for keeping movie theaters in business. The film is visually breathtaking, and anchored by two strong performances. But the loyalties in “My Cousin Rachel” seesaw too dramatically for tension to build satisfyingly; the film runs hot and cold when it really wants to simmer.
“My Cousin Rachel” is in limited release and will expand this Friday, June 16.