Review: My Cousin Rachel
Musty country houses and unsigned wills, carriage rides and Cornish cliffs, copper teapots and tattered curtains, sealed handwritten letters tucked into tweedy jacket pockets; the aura of elegance and secrecy popularly associated with the material and social world of 19th-century England has created a perennial audience for even humdrum, potboiler material like My Cousin Rachel.
My Cousin Rachel is not one of novelist Daphne du Maurier’s best-regarded novels, and in 1952 Laurence Olivier and Olivia de Havilland starred in a faithful, well-received, but promptly forgotten screen adaptation. Writer/director Roger Michell could have imposed his own layers of mystery or meaning onto this otherwise unremarkable and unheralded story. Unfortunately, he seems content merely going through the motions, dressing sets and actors in the familiar style of the genre without finding emotion or logic in du Maurier’s meager plot twists.
The driving concern of the movie’s characters is guilt: did Rachel (Rachel Weisz) seduce and poison her husband, and is she now seducing and poisoning her husband’s heir (Sam Claflin) in order to acquire a fortune? Unlike a good mystery, there are no tantalizing clues; all information pertinent to the notion of murder is conveyed through the tired convention of an introductory narration, and little more is added for us or the characters during the movie’s short runtime. Unlike a good thriller, there is no tension; scenes of poisoning and scenes of romance are handled with the same monotonous dispassion, and even a climactic pursuit is robbed of its urgency by an elegiac score that funnels us mechanically into the epilogue. Unlike a good drama, there is precious little sense of character; Claflin lacks individuality, and the usually-stellar Weisz wrings no emotion from Michell’s dry script, brings neither anguish nor conviction to her monologues about the cruel strictures of Victorian law and morality. What’s left of My Cousin Rachel is merely an attractive collection of sets, shot and edited with unvarying, ineffectual sameness.
Michell is no stranger to English relationship dramas or 19th-century period pieces, with 1999’s Notting Hill and 1995’s Persuasion among his highest-ranked films on Flickchart, but he has had little success with psychological thrillers. The example of Hitchcock, who adapted du Maurier’s superior novel Rebecca into an unsettling and stylish suspense that received eleven Oscar nominations, sets a bar that few directors could reach, but Michell barely seems to have tried.
Ten Matchups: Gothic Film
Ranking My Cousin Rachel using the Gothic Film franchise filter, I’d choose as follows:
- My Cousin Rachel loses to Rebecca (#159)
Rebecca is the du Maurier gold standard.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to The Bride of Frankenstein (#192)
An iconic sequel bests an inconsequential remake.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to The Innocents (#436)
Ambiguity is as successful in The Innocents as it is unsuccessful in My Cousin Rachel.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (#459)
Baby Jane still drops jaws. My Cousin Rachel won’t even raise eyebrows.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to The Phantom of the Opera (#879)
Sets and costumes are all at which My Cousin Rachel excels, but this Lon Chaney silent classic did them better.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to Carnival of Souls (#1202)
Gloriously weird beats bland.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to Sleepy Hollow (#1308)
Sleepy Hollow is at least as frustrating, but more memorable.
- My Cousin Rachel beats Wuthering Heights (#1553)
As a literary adaptation, My Cousin Rachel is more faithful than the misguided Wuthering Heights.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to The Witch (#1706)
The Witch should climb the global chart as it establishes its place in the modern horror canon.
- My Cousin Rachel loses to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (#1826)
Music and casting carry Sweeney Todd over weak competition.