Philip (Sam Claflin) is a young, English gentleman who is forced to mourn his cousin Ambrose after a trip to Florence in Italy. He vows to give Ambrose’s missing wife Rachel (Rachel Weisz) her comeuppance, blaming her solely for his cousin’s sudden death. When Philip meets Rachel for the first time, he is besotted with her. His mood immediately changes as he falls under her spell of seduction and charm. His obsession grows like a weed, and Rachel now plots to win back Ambrose’s estate from the unsuspecting Philip. Their tale is a portrait of the interesting and annoying things people do when in love, or at the very least when they think they are in love.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first, there is only one bad thing worth talking about. When I think of a period drama with a leaning into the horror genre, I believe that its musical score should have presence. Rael Jones’ score lacks the presence a film of this type should have. From The Witch (2016) to Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2016) to Rebecca (1940) to 1944’s Gaslight (though I’ve only seen the stage play) to things like Jane Eyre (2011), a musical score is vitally relevant in dark romance dramas of this calibre. And even with the budgets of a small stage play, Lucy Bailey’s Gaslight starring Tara Fitzgerald (Game Of Thrones) had a brilliant score, unlike our little film here.
Moving on, My Cousin Rachel is a fine addition to the number of theatrically-released, more traditional period dramas I’ve seen this year, following in the footsteps of Viceroy’s House, Lady Macbeth, Lost City of Z and Their Finest. Based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel makes for an entertainingly bleak turn of events. Regardless of my criticism earlier, I really liked this film. I’ve watched forty-four films at the cinema this year and I have not disliked a single one of them. My Cousin Rachel makes forty-five, and it succeeds in every category (excluding the score). It’s truly on another level of period drama-awesomeness.
Much akin to Lady Macbeth, we are witness to a dark love affair which at the end of the day turns out to be one-sided and loveless, though not without passion. Sam Claflin (Their Finest) plays Philip, a brooding man-boy of money in the 19th century, always scowling through his halls followed by his dogs and very handy estate workers who he treats amiably. Though, young Philip is very odious when it comes to women, who he sees as another life form, not of this world in the slightest. And this all happens while Louise (Holliday Grainger) the daughter of the family lawyer (Iain Glen) pines for him, a pining only matched by Austen’s Caroline Bingley going after Darcy.
When we’re not following Rachel’s bewitching beauty or the nostalgic naiveties of Philip’s view of the world, we are witness to the great landscapes of the Cornish coast. It’s all very Poldarkian and this is where our characters live. With Ambrose dead, Philip is the master of the house. Once thought in love with the love of his life, Ambrose’s last letters speak of Rachel’s evilness that portray her as some sort of cunning, Hitchcockian Bond villain. “She’s always watching”. When they married, she was great. After the fact, it’s not long until Ambrose is on death’s door. She has become sinister. My God, it just sounds like one more of those horror stories about marriage!
When Rachel (Weisz) arrives in Cornwall unannounced all in black, the village begin to talk. She has no claim to Ambrose’s estate, but with her enchanting beauty and foreign tea, the Cornish beings to think she’s a witch. Can’t tea just be tea, even if tastes disgusting? Mr Kendall (Iain Glen) doesn’t like her and does some snooping of his own, finding out she’s “notorious” for “unbridled extravagance” but Philip does not care. After her first husband and then Ambrose, Philip is next. With her beauty and sexuality combined with the alluring aura of tragedy, Rachel has big plans and Philip (Claflin) is only the next man of means on her platter, ready to be diced up and sent to God.
It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca but more so the Hitchcock adaptation that came in 1940, being the only Hitchcock film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The scheming and assertive Rachel is very Mrs Danvers, but when Rachel talks of her time abroad it throws in some of Max de Winter’s personality. Yet, in this story, Sam Claflin is rather like de Winter’s second wife Rebecca, played by Joan Fontaine. And in the 1952 picture, Fontaine’s sister Olivia de Havilland (Gone With The Wind) plays Rachel opposite Richard Burton (Cleopatra). Both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel are strikingly alike, but very different too.
Weisz’s command of the screen in My Cousin Rachel often reminded me of Tara Fitzgerald in Gaslight. It’s a very self-aware performance that gave me chills from start to finish. For better or worse, Rachel Weisz is Cousin Rachel. They become one entity and that’s frightening. Early on, Philip demands from one of his servants a description of Rachel, along the lines of whether she is fat or looks like a man, or even has a moustache. Of course, she isn’t any of these things, but Weisz is painted to be the villain in this film. From the get go, it is suggested that we root for the very Ross Poldark and masculine Philip. Yet, I was rooting for Rachel and I’m still uncertain why.
And it’s highly comical that Rachel manages to get a man who wanted her guts for garters to like, and even love her. She could seduce an English general out of a battleship. Her darkly sensual presence plays into this. Weisz’s impertinent beauty in the view of the village just adds to my perceived black comedy of this situation. As soon as our duo meet, she immediately wins which makes him feel uncomfortable, all by swapping his hate for infatuation. Again, Sam Claflin gives a great performance. And again, I will implore that he get more roles. He plays second fiddle to Weisz but he still gives a good performance as what I’d call the film’s unconscious antagonist.
The cinematography is also very good, showing England as it should be seen. When foreigners think of England, many think of the dirty and gritty and quite overrated London Town. People often think too much about Dickens with Oliver Twist or BBC’s Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders. City life with the smog and pollution of industry. But when I think of England, I think of the parks, countryside and the little villages. The choice of shots used do England justice, even if it is only the Cornish corner of it. The countryside is England at its most beautiful, which is also shown in Lady Macbeth. Why have Oliver Twist when you can have Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice?
From Rachel Weisz (Denial) to Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) to Iain Glen (Game Of Thrones) to Sam Claflin (Me Before You), this cast is really something. And the more films I watch this year, the more I see that big budget Hollywood movies are slacking in comparison to stories of this calibre. These are interesting stories with characters I actually care about and I couldn’t really ask for anything more.