Director Roger Michell’s “My Cousin Rachel” is a juicy, gothic romantic melodrama, based on a 1951 novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin tackle the story of passion and paranoia. In this tale, impetuous, distrustful masculinity meets mysterious, veiled femininity, which proves to be a combustible combination on contact.
Though Rachel is an omnipresent figure, this story belongs to Philip (Claflin). His beloved cousin and guardian, Ambrose (Claflin plays both men), retreats to Italy to convalesce, where he meets and marries an intriguing woman, Rachel (Weisz). After his untimely death, his widow arrives at his English estate, where Philip, his only heir, is now man of the house, and suspicious of his new relative, thanks to a series of anguished notes from a dying Ambrose. The sheltered man has whipped himself into a frenzy over her arrival, but it turns out the cousin in question is beautiful and charming, and soon everything is topsy-turvy.
Weisz gives a performance that is virtuosic in its control. Her face is like the placid surface of a lake, never giving anything away. Is it nefarious? A defense? Both? Rachel is highly intelligent, resourceful, guarded, but also playful and compassionate. Claflin gives one of his best performances as the petulant Philip, his emotional pendulum swinging from puppyish naïveté to sinister anger.
Claflin and Weisz spin a captivating spell, but Michell carefully balances the perspectives, so you never know who to believe.
“My Cousin Rachel” is an operatic melodrama of hidden notes, stolen kisses, family jewels and love’s first blush, but it’s also a film about the danger of one’s own belief system, being locked into one way of thinking. It’s a cautionary tale about toxic masculinity: of impulsive and jealous young bucks operating within a patriarchal system controlling women’s independence.
Early on, Rachel expresses a desire to live a modest widow’s life, getting by as an independent woman. For that desire, she is rewarded with suspicion, jealousy and anger.
Her story is ultimately about the danger of being a single woman in a world that can’t reconcile that fact. The tangled perspectives of “My Cousin Rachel” illustrate a crucial element of their limits — the only thing stands in the way of the truth is our own understanding.
“My Cousin Rachel”
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language. 1:46. Kentucky.