A psychological thriller exhibiting more than a little paranoia over the sort of social change an independent woman might inflict upon the world, English author Daphne du Maurier’s hugely successful novel My Cousin Rachel has been brought back to the silver screen brilliantly with English actor Rachel Weisz completely awe-inspiring in the title role.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers.
A thoroughly modern woman for whom fear is not an option, Rachel Weisz has had to dig deep into her own psyche to provide the winning performance that brings this film home in a blaze of glory.
She is never obvious, has the courage of her convictions and is entirely animated when revealing at first that Rachel is capable of being wounded by words.
This ensures the audience remains in purgatory as to whether Rachel is a victim or villain. By playing her as an innocent, Rachel Weisz flushes out all those who would seek to judge her charge.
Judge not, that ye be not judged.*
Are we the audience able to avoid hypocricy, self-righteousness and censoriousness? Is the Jury still out?
This is a tale I have known since my childhood, reading the book and seeing the original movie made to tease us all unmercifully. It was by an author acclaimed in her day with her other most famous novel Rebecca, topping all the best seller charts.
The story of My Cousin Rachel (published in 1951) is told through narration from the perspective of the young man Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) who becomes infatuated with an older woman who exudes beauty, grace and compassion.
Set in the nineteenth century, Philip was orphaned as a child and raised on his country estate by his wealthy cousin Ambrose. In the atmosphere of this all- male preserve, he’s only known love and joy.
His godfather Ambrose’s friend Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), together with his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) visit often.
It is obvious the lovely Louise now a young woman, has been in love with Philip for a very long time.
While Philip is away at boarding school Ambrose, who suffers from ill health, is sent away on Dr’s orders to winter in Italy, which a great many English aristocratic people did at this time.
When Philip arrives home after finishing his schooling, he finds letters from his guardian telling him at first, of his marriage to the woman of his heart his distant cousin, Countess Rachel Sangalletti, a half English, half Italian widow.
Additional letters describe Ambrose’s marriage and subsequent illness, however it is the final letter that changes everything. His uncle pleads for Philip to come… indicating something is very wrong… telling him about Rachel …my torment.
Hastily removing from England to Tuscany, Philip arrives in Florence to find Ambrose has died and Rachel has gone.
Informed of Rachel’s friendship with Italian lawyer, Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) heightens Philip’s suspicions, and he confronts Rainaldi who assures Philip that Ambrose died from a brain tumour, which made him paranoid in the end.
Still uneasy, Philip discovers Ambrose has left his estate to be kept in trust for him until his twenty-fifth birthday. He vows whatever pain Rachel inflicted on his uncle will be repaid twofold. Distressed, he goes back to England with a heavy heart, vowing revenge against this unknown woman whom he sees as responsible for his uncle’s death.
He’s only home a few days when Rachel arrives, bringing her husband’s possessions back home to Phillip.
Astonished in his youthful naivete, Philip is overwhelmed by how young and vivacious she is. Much to his chagrin, he finds that she is open, friendly and quite delightful. Kendall being executor of Ambrose’s will asks him to look kindly on her because basically she is penniless.
Philip is flattered she knows so much about him and so he offers for her to stay at the mansion, where for the audience she seemingly encourages Philip’s infatuation with her. He has fallen for her hook, line and sinker from the moment they finally met.
At Christmas he insists on giving the now much admired Rachel a valuable family necklace. However when his guardian Kendall discovers what he has done, he demands its return.
He has discovered Rachel is overdrawing her bank account and sending money to Italy. Kendall appraises Philip of the facts as he knows them, but his godson is now at the point where he refuses to hear anything bad about this enigmatic woman.
Sam Claflin transforms Philip from a level headed young man into a man with a dangerous obsession with care and skill.
Philip struggles to be pleasant to Rainaldi when he visits from Italy, especially when he reveals Ambrose had written a new will leaving everything to Rachel before he died, although he ran out of time while it was being drawn up as a legal document, for him to sign it.
The day before his twenty-fifth birthday, Philip demands Kendall transfer the Ashley estate to Rachel and at midnight delivers the deed to her room, along with the family jewels.
Overwhelmed with his generosity Rachel thanks Philip by taking him to her bed.
This implies to him that she will marry him. However when he announces their engagement at dinner for his birthday with Kendall and Louise, she embarrassingly denies it.
From there it is all downhill for Philip.
Rachel keeps brewing Philip ‘magical tisanes’ to drink while his paranoia grows to a point where it’s getting the better of him, leading up to his being cruel, not kind at all.
The film is sensitively filmed, the settings and costumes meticulously detailed, the landscapes spectacular and the acting outstanding. However in the end we are left only with questions.
Did she, didn’t she. Would she, wouldn’t she…
Sam Claflin plays Philip Ashley with conviction, while Rachel Weisz keeps us guessing by being deliciously ambiguous. She dominates the screen from her ‘dark’ dimension all the way to her untimely and dreadful demise.
Oh, wad some Power the giftie gie us,
To see ourselves as others see us!**
The tables are turned in the end… would he and did he…?
Did Philip do away with his torment by accident or was it deliberate?
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Director: Roger Michell
Screenplay: Roger Michell, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier
Music: Rael Jones.
Simon Russell Beale,
*Matthew 7:1-5 KJV
** Robert Burns (To a Louse)