Rachel Weisz is a Mystery Woman in Period Thriller

Director:  Roger Michell/2017

Philip was just a small boy when he was orphaned and taken in by his cousin, Ambrose Ashley. Ambrose raised the child in an idyllic bachelor’s life of swimming, horseback riding, and laboring alongside their farm hands in the fields.  It’s the sort of life in which “scything like a girl” is a really sick burn.  In fact, there is little space for girls in Ambrose and Philip’s world.  The only females allowed in Ashley Manor are the dogs, Philip informs us in voice over.  Any suggestion that now young adult Philip (Sam Claflin) might marry is met with incredulity and disgust.  And as for Ambrose every marrying, why would he need to do that?  “He has me!”  Philip declares, with a worrisome lack of insight for a 24 year old.

Philip is therefore shocked and dismayed when an ailing Ambrose, vacationing in Italy for his health, falls in love and marries yet another cousin, Rachel.  It’s bad enough that Rachel has broken up their chapter of the He-Man Women Haters Club, but far worse when the letters from Ambrose no longer sound enamored, but paranoid, frightened, and desperate instead.  Philip hurries to Italy to save his cousin only to find that he’s died from a brain tumor.  A brain tumor….riiiiight.

What’s really in those foul tasting cups of Italian tea that Rachel keeps serving Philip?

My Cousin Rachel is a light-gothic suspense thriller in the black widow subgenre.  Philip returns from Italy vowing revenge against the woman who he is convinced murdered his beloved guardian.  But was it murder?  And if it was, will Philip fall to the same fate after the beautiful and charismatic Rachel (Rachel Weisz) comes to stay at Ashley Manor?

The early scenes between Rachel and Philip are among the film’s best.  Philip is determined to take the upper hand and show contempt to Rachel, but he underestimates not only her charm, but her confidence.  Within a few minutes she is in charge, behaving as mistress of the manor, disarming him with her casual disregard for house rules.

Things unfold as one might expect:  Philip falls in love with Rachel.  Rachel is penniless, since Ambrose didn’t change his will after marrying her.  Philip stands to take full control of Ashley Estate and the family fortunes on his next birthday.  Completely besotted, Philips signs it all over to Rachel despite the protests of his godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glenn) and Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holiday Granger).  Louise is Philip’s one true friend, pert and pink cheeked, and clearly a more suitable match than the twice-widowed, much older Rachel.  But Philip is not thinking straight, and some birthday sex (Rachel’s “gift” to him) doesn’t help in clearing his head.

Director Roger Michell (Morning Glory, Changing Lanes) has created a smart looking film.  The costumes and set design are spot on, and the exterior shots are beautiful.  Interiors drive home how dimly lit those huge stone manors must have been pre-electricity.  Darkness and shadows heighten the sense of mystery around Rachel.  What’s really in those foul tasting cups of Italian tea that she keeps serving Philip?  Michell shifts the focus from foreground to background over and over – a technique that is effectively disorienting, but one that he uses so often it becomes a distraction.  That’s a minor fault, though.   Performances are fine, too.  Rachel Weisz is rock solid, as always:  beautiful, but with something unreadable in her dark eyes.  Claflin is fine, although Philip is a bit of a dope.  He’s young, sure, but not that young.  His impulsive decisions and refusal to listen to Kendall or Louise make it difficult to sympathize with his plight.  Late in the film Philip says, “I’ve been a fool,” and at the screening I attended this brought laughter from the audience.  We’d been thinking that Philip was a fool for quite a while by that point.

My real complaint with My Cousin Rachel is in the ending, though.  I won’t spoil it, of course, but after a steady stream of red flags and dropped clues the end felt like a cheat.  It reminded me that this film is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebecca.  Like the film Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel features a strong cast, lots of atmosphere, but an unsatisfying conclusion.  Whatever comes earlier in a movie, it’s hard to shake off the disappointment that comes from a poor ending.

Did she?  Or didn’t she?  Philip’s voice over asks this question both at the beginning and the end of My Cousin Rachel.  Is Rachel is scheming murderer, or just a woman with a lust for life and bad luck in husbands?  Unfortunately, by the end of the movie I’m not sure I cared much about solving the mystery.