When in doubt, head for Du Maurier. That must surely be on the mind of anyone looking to cut their teeth with some serious filmmaking chops, as Daphne’s books have all the necessary thrills and spills to satisfy many a cinematic palate. From these works we have had no less than a hat-trick from Hitchcock (Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963)), as well as Nicolas Roeg’s masterwork Don’t Look Now (1973) and plenty of minor works and potboilers besides.
And now entering the canon we have Roger Michell’s adaptation of My Cousin Rachel. This story has been adapted before, in a 1952 version starring Olivia de Havilland and that venerable piss artist himself, Richard Burton. Michell has some form with worthy adaptations – he filmed Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (2004) and Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay of Le Week-End (2013). Now, in taking on My Cousin Rachel, he is trying to shake off the former version’s starchiness and is instead looking to rediscover the ambiguity within it.
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) is to inherit the wealth of a large estate on this twenty-fifth birthday, following the death of his cousin in Italy. Shortly after he finds this out, Philip receives his cousin’s widow, Rachel (Rachel Weisz) at the estate. At first he intends to treat Rachel with hostility, in part due to a belated letter he has received from his cousin that seems to suggest foul play on her part in his death. But then – wouldn’t you believe it! – he becomes awestruck by her beauty and instead makes her a wealthy dowager. What follows plays out against the subsequent friction between what we assume are these characters’ intentions. Things come to a head following a – literal – cliffhanger, after which Philip falls ill and the question of the arrangement of the estate becomes much more urgent.
My Cousin Rachel is not set in the east Cornwall of the story, which is bound to disappoint some in this neck of the woods, although some of the gorgeous coastal shots were recognisably done in south Devon, which should be of some consolation. (There are also some beautiful cutaways to Philip’s cousin’s place in Italy.)
The performances are done well enough to push you into a genuine dilemma – Did she? Didn’t she? Will she? Won’t she? – which plays on your preconceptions and continues right up to a surprise climax. It may not have the delicious menace of that masterful anti-costume drama from earlier this year, Lady MacBeth, which was set in a similar time. But My Cousin Rachel does have something of its own understated intensity that should make it worth your while.