A gothic moodpiece masquerading as a thriller, My Cousin Rachel is a misdirected swoon of a movie—long on black-veiled romance and ravishing atmosphere and a little short, alas, on dividends. Sam Claflin (Me Before You, The Hunger Games) stars as Phillip, a lordly but unworldly 19th-century aristocrat raised mostly on a remote seaside manor under the benign guardianship of his older cousin Ambrose (also played, in brief flashes, by Claflin.)
When Ambrose travels alone to the warmer climes of Italy for his health, he soon sends home notice of a new love: Another cousin, Rachel (God bless the intra-family marriage rules of a bygone era). But their wedded bliss is short-lived—or more specifically, Ambrose is: His sudden death leaves Rachel a penniless widow and Phillip furiously bereft, robbed of the one man who cared for him. He is determined to hate this mysterious temptress, the vixen whose shady machinations seem to have driven poor Ambrose to madness (though the older man’s dying accusations, written in a shaky, desperate hand, may also be due to the sizable brain tumor reported in his postmortem).
When Rachel (the exquisitely ageless Rachel Weisz) finally pays a visit, she is both much more and less than Phillip assumed: A whipsmart, porcelain-skinned beauty with no apparent desire to take anything from her late husband’s estate other than memories of the man she loved. It’s no huge surprise that Phillip’s malice turns almost immediately into abject adoration: he is easily disarmed by her wit and charm; he’s also a 24-year-old man who’s hardly seen an exposed breastbone in his adult life—and Rachel’s, beneath her demure mourning clothes, is a stunner. But as he grows more obsessed, and more fiscally generous, the few people close to him (including Iain Glen as his even-keeled godfather Nick Kendall, and Holliday Granger as Nick’s nubile daughter) begin to wonder: Are her intentions as harmless as they seem?
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has crafted a largely faithful remake of the 1952 Olivia de Havilland–Richard Burton movie of the same name, which was itself based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier—the author of another all-time classic of the genre, Rebecca. And he’s shot it gorgeously; England and Italy’s travel boards should both send him a generous fruit basket. The most notable difference is the distinctly modern shadings of his Rachel: as Weisz portrays her, she’s not just a canny seductress with clouded motivations; she’s a keenly perceptive, sexually intelligent woman who chafes at living in a world that leaves even well-born unattached females so few social and financial options.
Whether that’s motivation enough to murder, the story leaves till the very end—treating the answer with an ambiguity that may appeal to twist-happy screenwriters, but is less satisfying for an actual audience. And whether she dunnit, in the end, turns out to be not nearly as interesting as the mystery of why anyone might be driven to in the first place. B