Its title couldn’t be more innocuous and genteel, but don’t be taken in. Anchored in an exceptionally persuasive performance by Rachel Weisz, “My Cousin Rachel” is not only a triumphant exercise in dark and delicious romantic ambiguity, the pitfalls of being taken in are what this melodramatic thriller is all about.
First filmed more than 60 years ago with Olivia de Havilland in the title role and based on a novel set a century earlier, “My Cousin Rachel” has not only refused to date, it has if anything extended its relevance.
In fact, as written and directed with intelligence, zest and craft by Roger Michell and making expert use of Weisz’s impeccable work, “My Cousin Rachel” comes off as remarkably modern, dealing with personal issues and power dynamics between men and women that arguably echo at least as strongly now as they did back in the day.
This is in significant measure due to the narrative skill of novelist Daphne du Maurier, in her prime one of the highest paid authors in the world. Du Maurier was capable of combining psychological acuity and deft plotting to such an extent that three of her novels (“Jamaica Inn,” “The Birds” and the classic “Rebecca”) were memorably filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.
With smart stories like “Venus” and “Notting Hill” and one of the best Jane Austen adaptations (1995’s “Persuasion”) to his credit, director Michell has always been expert at transitioning literate material to the screen.
He’s helped here by a top visual team, including cinematographer Mike Eley, production designer Alice Normington, costume designer Dinah Collin and editor Kristina Hetherington. Working in tandem, they see to it that each image on the screen, whether it be wind-swept landscapes, gutted candles or Rachel’s midnight-blue riding outfit against a milk-white steed, is visually thrilling without seeming fussy or overthought.
Though her name is on everyone’s lips from the start, the title character doesn’t appear for a while, which leaves the focus on the film’s narrator, who hauntingly demands in an opening voice-over, “Rachel. Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?”
That questioner is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), who is tasked with filling in the film’s complex back story in a brisk pre-credits prologue that contains more plot than many entire films.
Orphaned as a child, Philip is adopted by his cousin Ambrose, who the boy comes to love as a father. Returning from school determined to avoid “books, cities, clever talk,” Philip has his tranquil Cornwall world upended several times over.
First his beloved Ambrose travels to Italy for his health, then Ambrose falls in love with and marries the half-Italian Rachel, “radiant, good, the kindest companion,” then he begins sending home darker, more sinister letters hinting that Rachel is scheming to end his life.
Philip goes to Italy at once, but Ambrose has died by the time he arrives, Rachel has disappeared, and her mysterious Italian friend Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) insists the cause of Ambrose’s death was a brain tumor that caused paroxysms of paranoia in the sick man.
The 1952 version of ‘Rachel’ has the great benefit of a young Richard Burton in his Hollywood debut playing Philip.
Philip swears to wreak vengeance on the absent Rachel and returns to the rural estate he will soon inherit, looked after by his wary guardian/godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and Nick’s good-humored daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), who is clearly in love with the oblivious young man. All is tranquility itself, until Rachel pays an unexpected visit and the film begins in earnest.
The 1952 version of “Rachel” has the great benefit of a young Richard Burton in his Hollywood debut playing Philip. With his passionate intensity and melodious voice, Burton runs away with the part (he was nominated for an Oscar) and is a tough act for Claflin to follow.
Often seen playing an unheroic hero (he was Gemma Arterton’s cranky collaborator in “Their Finest”), Claflin gives Philip a different kind of a reading than Burton, but one that is well-suited to the points this “Rachel” is making.
For, not to put too fine a point on it, Claflin’s Philip is kind of a dolt, an emotionally dense bear of little brain who doesn’t understand a lot of things, women being first among them. The fact that we are seeing Rachel largely through his eyes makes him an unreliable narrator of a very particular sort.
In truth, though, Rachel would be a lot for anyone to get used to. A bewitching, classically feminine beauty who likes to drink herbal infusions or tisanes, she represents a style of life Philip has never even imagined existed. Not only does he give up all thoughts of vengeance, he is soon besotted with her himself.
But because Rachel proves unpredictable, because she herself is so different and, in Weisz’s subtle, effortlessly complex performance, so unknowable, suspicions about her actions never die.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the bigger question, one that feels very contemporary, becomes whether what Rachel says and does are signs of sinister behavior or simply the actions of a woman who wants to be her own person, someone who heartbreakingly asks, “Why shouldn’t I have a life of my own?”
How “My Cousin Rachel” resolves this diabolically ambivalent situation, how it deals with the “Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” questions it began with, is a dilemma fated to haunt us even after the final credits roll.
‘My Cousin Rachel’
Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In limited release