Who’s Rachel? What does she want? And what’s she willing to do to get it? These are the questions at the center of Roger Michell’s snappy adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic potboiler My Cousin Rachel. The film largely presents Rachel (Rachel Weisz) through the eyes of Philip (played as an adult by Sam Claflin), an orphan taken in and raised by his older cousin, Ambrose (Iain Glen). After taking ill, Ambrose moves to Florence to improve his health while leaving his ward alone with the servants on his Cornwall estate. Ambrose writes to Philip of his surprise marriage to the half-Italian Rachel and his intention to stay in Italy. But Ambrose’s letters become increasingly unhinged, accusing Rachel of harming him and begging Philip for help.
Michell moves the story forward at a galloping pace, churning through a considerable amount of narrative without getting bogged down in its own plottiness. By the time Philip arrives in Italy and finds that Ambrose has died and Rachel has fled, it’s only a matter of time before he vows revenge on the woman he suspects of killing his cousin. And when Rachel later arrives unexpectedly at his estate, Philip finds himself infatuated with her, quickly absolving her of Ambrose’s death and pursuing her hand in marriage. From Philip’s decaying candlelit manor to Rachel’s ominous black mourning veils, and even the sweeping shots of Cornwall’s craggy coast, there’s an appealing pulp-Brontean sensibility to certain touches employed throughout, even if the film lacks the stylized visual panache this material often calls out for.
Like Henry Koster’s 1952 adaptation of du Maurier’s novel starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, Michell’s film never fully resolves the mystery of its title character, leaving her motives, desires, and integrity (or lack thereof) ambiguous through to the end. Is Rachel in love with Philip, or is she simply out to steal away his estate? This tantalizing uncertainty makes for a ripping yarn, one that toys with our expectations of an easily definable femme fatale and constantly forces us to adjust our assumptions.
In Weisz’s portrayal, Rachel seems always to be enjoying a private joke, withholding her true emotions as a means of maintaining her autonomy. If there’s a definable center to Rachel’s personality, it’s her unwillingness to let anyone control her, least of all Philip. Played by Claflin with a simpering, puppy-dog piteousness—a sharp contrast to Burton’s brooding intensity in the original film—Philip is an immature obsessive who allows his intense infatuation to curdle into an at-times violent need to dominate Rachel.
My Cousin Rachel, though, is ultimately limited by its own narrative coyness. Rachel is clearly a woman who craves her own independence, but this is as deep as the characterization goes, leaving her passions, secrets, foibles, and history frustratingly undefined. Michell gives viewers just enough information to keep us guessing about Rachel’s true motives while never providing enough detail for her to emerge as a fully realized person. Our inability to completely understand Rachel may mirror Philip’s own, but after a while her enigmatic nature starts to feel less like an enticing mystery than a narrative trick.