My Cousin Rachel is a spellbinding adaptation of the 1951 novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Skilfully adapted for the screen by writer/director Roger Michell, this is a beautifully crafted suspense-thriller, with exquisite cinematography and production design, alongside strong performances from its leads.
Orphan Phillip Ashley (Sam Clafin) regularly receives letters from his guardian, his beloved cousin Ambrose, who is spending time in the warmer climes of Italy. Ambrose informs Phillip that he’s fallen ill, but that he is being cared for by Rachel (Rachel Weisz) – a distant Italian-English cousin with whom he’s fallen in love and has swiftly married. His letters soon take a disturbing turn, becoming worryingly paranoid, and in them Ambrose accuses Rachel of affecting his health; he becomes gravely ill and requests Phillip travel to him immediately. Concerned, Phillip goes to Italy in haste, but by the time he arrives Ambrose is already dead, apparently from a brain tumour, and Rachel has hastily departed. Phillip vows vengeance on Rachel, whom he blames for Ambrose’s demise, and returns to England broken-hearted and full of rage.
Shortly after Phillip’s return, Rachel sends word that she will be visiting him, and his anger soon turns to boyish bedazzlement, as the beautiful and enigmatic Rachel captivates him under her spell. Phillip, not yet behaving like the Master of the house that he has become, is arrogant, immature, and impulsive, and these traits result in him making rash decisions. Unable to see beyond his own lust and obsession, he’s blinded by love; Phillip relinquishes more than just money to Rachel. Soon, he becomes suspicious and paranoid, but his inability to think maturely is what causes his own demise. Eventually, just as Ambrose did, he blames Rachel for his final torment.
The film builds an entrancingly slow, brooding suspense and Weisz is exceptional in the role as the innocent, yet manipulative widow. She delicately manages to craft a cunning web, whilst offering an almost maternal affection toward Phillip, which exploits both his childish need for love, and an adult need to be desired. Weisz offers a subtle, yet powerful performance, and her Rachel expertly offers us virtuous humility, with the threat of much darkness beneath. The film’s skill is in never quite showing us what Rachel may or may not be capable of, but the underlying malevolence brews slowly onscreen like one of her potions. It’s an unsettling watch, with a deep sense of foreboding, and Weisz manages to bewitch us as well as Phillip with her seductiveness.
The story in many ways seems an allegory for female emancipation. Set in the 19th Century, the codes which governed marriage and property at that time meant that women’s lives were limited by their relationships with men. Similarly, Rachel’s entirely dependent on men, even as a widow; Phillip provides her with an income, but initially that is controlled by him. It’s only when he signs over his estate to her, and we learn that she has no wish to marry him, that we see she may finally have freedom and independence, and not rely on a man to support her. But it’s assumed, by almost everyone, that Rachel will need to remarry; a woman of high class was not expected to work, she was expected to marry well, and Rachel’s rejection of this is seen as suspicious. With the references by male characters to her apparently limitless “appetite”, we see that even her sexuality is viewed as dangerous and she is still demonised. In some ways, Rachel seems to represent the modernity of women’s liberation and how that threatened the male hegemonic status quo in such a moralistic, conservative time. Whilst not explicitly a feminist story, its political subtext is deftly explored through a discomforting ominous lens, and just like Phillip, we gladly succumb to its cleverness.