My Cousin Rachel (2017) / Drama-Mystery

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Poppy Lee Friar
Director: Roger Michell
Screenplay: Roger Michell
Review published June 17, 2017

Roger Michell (Le Week-End, Hyde Park on Hudson) directs and scripts this adaptation of the rather unconventional Daphne Du Maurier novel, previously brought to the screen in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton in the lead roles.  Michell has stated that he has never seen the earlier adaptation, choosing to concentrate solely on what he perceived from the original novel.  The two films do share quite a bit of commonality in story structure, but it's in their respective tones that the films play out as different entities, with the 2017 version choosing to go a more earthy and plausible route to try to engage in psychological drama over suspense.

Sam Claflin (Their Finest, Me Before You) stars as Philip, a sheltered orphan raised on his older cousin Ambrose's English estate where the only females allowed were among the dogs that also resided there.  Grown up, but not quite mature in life, Philip begins to receive strange missives from Ambrose (who we briefly see at the beginning of the film, also played by Claflin), who is residing in Italy with another cousin, Rachel (Weisz, Complete Unknown), with whom he has married, and to whom his guardian also refers to as his "torment" and that he is in grave danger.  Philip heads straight away to find answers for the dubious letters, only to find that Ambrose has passed away, records indicating a brain tumor that affected his perception of things, so he is told.  The young man returns home dissatisfied and sure of Rachel's guilt in the death, but will soon find out now that his unconventional and worldly cousin Rachel is coming to the estate he is set to inherit for a visit.

My Cousin Rachel is much more of a psychological study in this effort than its predecessor from 65 years prior, but also in trying to play more somber and realistic, it also suffers from the closer examination that such a slow and grounded take provides.  The film offers us two possibilities where either Rachel is a widow who appreciates the finer things in life and is willing to indulge in Philip's advances until they become too serious, or that she is a conniving and possibly murderous gold-digger who is easily playing Philip for a fool as he hands over the family fortune without much effort on her part.

The strength of My Cousin Rachel comes through its two lead performances, with Rachel Weisz as charismatic and beguiling as Rachel should be, despite not really appearing in the film until well into the story.  Claflin tones down his usual witty banter to reveal a woefully inexperienced lad who finds instant emotional fragility when he isn't sure how much his burgeoning feelings for Rachel may not be reciprocated.  Distant cousins take on oedipal proportions, as Philip views Rachel as a combination of potential lover and possible replacement for the mother he never had (and no other mature women were ever allowed to care for him), looking to her for guidance, and even trying to seal the deal by giving Rachel his mother's very own necklace.

Tensions are still resident in the mind of young Philip, as he is never quite 100% sure he can trust Rachel, though she seems to prove trustworthy time and again.  Matters escalate when Philip seeks to please Rachel, eventually seeking to try to control her through gifts and the promise of luxury, but we often wonder just who is the hunter and who is the prey in their nebulous relationship.  Meanwhile, Philip's closest confidantes can merely look on as he engages in puppy-dog eyes full of fancy and folly, while she utilizes her own tea brews that are either painting her as a healer or as a witch, or perhaps a bit of both.

The storyline takes a look at manipulation and how it is perceived.  Is Rachel really manipulative because she knows how the game is played and can use that knowledge in her favor?  Or is she merely trying not to become a victim of a society that has been built by centuries of manipulation, where men utilize their money, power and status to get what they want and it would be untoward or exceedingly impolite to not kowtow to their every whim and fancy.  Rachel desires freedom -- to find her own destiny, purpose, and way through life -- and yet this she is regarded as someone wild and immoral for her decisions that don't conform to societal norms.  But does that perceived immorality also include murderous deeds?  That's the question that is the crux of the story's mystery,

The cinematography from Mike Eley (Touching the Void, Nanny McPhee Returns) stands out for its use of natural lighting and environs that are shown as they should be, rather than a romanticized place only found in period-piece cinema.  He utilizes good use of claustrophobic framing, as well as light and shadow to create mood and meaning, especially in the ambiguous nature of the intentions of the characters throughout.  On the downside, the visual effects stand out much more as fake when realism is employed, with an especially unconvincing landslide effect that reminds us that pulls us out for a moment to reflect on My Cousin Rachel as a film entity rather than a story that has us fully absorbed.

My Cousin Rachel is a film that tantalizes and has a few interesting things to say about male/female dynamics, but it is one of those films that fails to fully satisfy.

Qwipster's rating:

2017 Vince Leo