Daphne Du Maurier’s famous romantic suspense novel, My Cousin Rachel, was one of the books that sat on my parents’ shelf from the time I can remember, along with several of her others: Rebecca, and Frenchman’s Creek, and later on, Don’t Look Now. She was the kind of novelist my mother appreciated for her smooth (but never pretentious) prose, combined with superb storytelling ability. As a child, I read the book and remember how I was drawn into its story of a young Cornish man, Philip, whose beloved cousin Ambrose departs to spend the winter in Italy for reasons of health. There he meets a distant cousin, an Englishwoman named Rachel. They quickly marry, and Ambrose writes to Philip that he has no immediate plans to return to Cornwall. Not long after, Philip receives a string of letters from Ambrose telling him that he has come to distrust his new wife, who watches him continually. Ambrose becomes gravely ill, and Philip goes to Italy to discover that Ambrose has died and that Rachel, who received nothing in her husband’s will, has moved on. Although Philip is told that Ambrose died of a brain tumor, he suspects that his cousin may have been done in by his new wife. Eventually, Rachel turns up at the family estate in Cornwall, whereupon Philip loses little time in falling in love with her. She is enigmatic, but charming and quite beautiful, and Philip becomes so bewitched by her that he loses his head completely and winds up signing over his entire estate to her—at which point Rachel appears to withdraw from him. (I say “appears” because the entire story is told from Philip’s point of view.) She rejects his marriage proposal, and Philip proceeds to go quickly off the rails, as circumstances seem to indicate that Rachel is intent on eliminating him in the same manner he suspects she disposed of Ambrose.
At some point, the old Matinee 12 series on Portland’s KPTV, aired the 1952 black-and-white film version of My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, which served as the American screen debut of Richard Burton as Philip. Rachel was portrayed by Olivia de Havilland—an unfortunate piece of casting. The story stands or falls on our confusion about whether Rachel is guilty or innocent, or whether Philip has leaped to a series of ill-fated conclusions about her. (In this sense, he is akin to the nameless second wife in du Maurier’s Rebecca, who badly misinterprets the situation she is presented with when she marries the wealthy Maxim de Winter.) As played by de Havilland, there is little question in the viewer’s mind that Rachel is up to no good from the beginning. De Havilland was a solid and often observant actress, but here she lacks the requisite sex appeal, and her touch is regrettably heavy. (She similarly gives the game away too soon as the villainous Miriam in Robert Aldrich’s Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.) The result is a well-upholstered but plodding movie that never catches fire—one that should have been ripe for a sizzling remake.
The new version of My Cousin Rachel, which I saw at the O Cinema in Miami Beach on June 11, is directed by Roger Michell in a swift, smooth, seamless manner. It’s a handsome piece of filmmaking, dominated by dark colors and muted earth tones, and the aerial shots of the beaches and fields in Cornwall are often quite beautiful. But everything is too swift, too seamless. The movie desperately needs a jolt of insanity, a flash of purple tastelessness, to inject some life into it. But it remains stubbornly immaculate. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Michell that this is a movie, and not an episode of Masterpiece Mystery! He never digs into the material and has no fun with it; the result is that this version doesn’t take root any deeper than the 1952 version did.
The big question for the audience is: just how guilty is Rachel? Probably quite—although she seems to feel some genuine sorrow for how Philip is suffering. The film’s most striking moment occurs after Rachel turns up late for Philip’s birthday picnic and they make love al fresco. The taut expression on her face suggests the dark depths she may be capable of—though it could just as easily be the confusion and ambivalence of a woman who feels that her embryonic love affair is not developing as she thought it might. That this scene works so well is largely thanks to the sophisticated gifts of Rachel Weisz, who plays Cousin Rachel. It’s a good role for her, since she has the ability to suggest so many conflicting emotions happening within a character at once. (She displays some of the magic here that she showed in Terence Davies’ superb 2011 film, The Deep Blue Sea, one of the best movies of that year that practically no one saw.) As Philip, Sam Claflin is polished, but maintains too much emotional distance from his character, while Holliday Grainger does a great deal with minimal screen time as the cast-aside Louise Kendall.
Trivia question: the source of the possible poison in My Cousin Rachel is the laburnum tree. Which PBS Mystery! series from a number of years ago features a murderess who uses laburnum to despatch her victims?