Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Audiences will have to draw their own conclusions about the eponymous character at the center of Roger Michell’s “My Cousin Rachel” — that’s the whole point of the tricky Gothic thriller, after all — but star Rachel Weisz has no time for such speculations. As the mysterious woman at the center of the Roger Michell film, based on the 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, Weisz made an early decision about Rachel’s motivations, and used that concealed knowledge to fuel her performance in the purposely deceptive film. It’s a perfect fit for a film that’s all about a woman bent on being unabashedly herself in a world that’s unwelcoming to such desires.
“It’s a really vivid, interesting role for a woman,” Weisz said in a recent interview. “She’s definitely very contradictory, and I like characters that have contradictions. I love looking at female sexuality and female desire. It’s a really good cocktail of elements.”
“My Cousin Rachel” initially seems occupied with its male leads, played by Sam Claflin in a nifty dual role as both narrator Philip Ashley and his elder cousin (and caretaker) Ambrose. When Ambrose heads off to Italy, he meets and ultimately falls for a distant cousin, played by Weisz. Their romance plays out over a series of letters sent home to Philip, missives that take a dark turn when Ambrose falls ill and accuses Rachel of somehow being behind it. By the time Philip makes his way to Italy to save his beloved relative, he’s dead, and Rachel has skipped town.
Inevitably, Philip blames Rachel for Ambrose’s death, which makes her sudden visit to his and Ambrose’s Cornwall estate all the more strained. But the Rachel who enters Philip’s life isn’t anything like the woman he expected, and her charms soon win him over, just as they did with Ambrose. But when Philip falls sick and Rachel turns cold, his old doubts return, and “My Cousin Rachel” charts his fixation with a woman who has made it clear that she wants to live her life on her own terms, no matter the cost. It’s a big, brash role for Weisz, and she inhabits with ease.
While the great pleasure of du Maurier’s tale is in the ambiguity of Rachel’s character — is she a “black widow spider,” as Weisz terms it, or just a woman woefully unlucky in love? — Michell’s film, which he also adapted for the screen, finds unexpected delight in the forward feminism of Rachel. While Philip obsesses over a woman he was once determined to punish, Rachel refuses to give into his feverish pleas for affection. Weisz’s performance adds a compelling feminist layer to the story, as Rachel’s resistance to Philip reads as firmly rooted in her choice to be free, even as Philip dangles the promise of money and the threat of violence over her.
The actress sparked to that concept in a big way, and Rachel’s wild independent streak and its added message speak to her own sensibilities.
“She’s saying, don’t try to possess me or own me. Don’t try to marry me and think that you can own me or buy me through money,” Weisz said. “At face value, she cares for Philip, but she doesn’t share the notion that he should be allowed to own her and marry her just because he has money to buy her with. Yeah, I’m down with that.”
Michell’s film also offered up another juicy element for Weisz, as the actress is nearly 16 years older than her co-star Claflin, who plays not just one, but two men who fall for her character’s charms. “If our genders were the other way around, this wouldn’t even be remarked upon, 16 years is nothing. I think 40 years is becoming the standard age gap,” she said with a laugh.
Du Maurier’s story was first adapted into a lavish big screen Gothic starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton just one year after its release. Despite a rocky start, the troubled production — original director George Cukor left the project, reportedly dissatisfied with screenwriter Nunnally Johnson’s take on the material — pulled in four Oscar nominations and majorly bolstered Burton’s rising star power. It hasn’t been remembered fondly, however, and has proven to be no match for Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier adaptation of du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” still the best known (and most loved) take on the author’s works.
In preparation for the role, Weisz read du Maurier’s book but steered clear of the 1952 feature — eager for “fresh eyes” for Michell’s take on the story — though she swiftly made a choice as to Rachel’s motivations and how that would impact her work on the film. But don’t bother asking her to share those conclusions, because she’s not telling.
“I decided before I began shooting,” she said. “Whether she was innocent or guilty, and I played it that way. The director [Michell] didn’t even want to know, so I kept it a secret from him. I like the fact that there is ambiguity, and it could be interpreted both ways. It’s making people have quite passionate arguments about what it’s about.”
Weisz is particularly excited about those arguments, and she resists the notion that there is any one “right” way to understand the story or its complicated leading lady. She revels in that ambiguity.
“I want them to take whatever side they believe in, and what they believe will reveal a lot about themselves,” she said. “I’ve got no interest in influencing anyone either way. Either she really is kind and warm or it’s a performance of kind and warmness, depending on how you see her. Even if it’s a performance, it’s got to be flawless. You’ve got to be able to believe in it.”
“My Cousin Rachel” is in theaters today.