If there’s any kind of film to contrast the huge studio blockbusters that traditionally fill the big screens in the summer months, a second attempt at a Daphne du Maurier adaptation is definitely it. As hoards of cinema goers flooded in to catch up on the likes of Wonder Woman and the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean, I joined along with a handful of calmer, greyer individuals to hopefully enjoy something of a slower pace and nature.
Unfortunately, the pace I encountered was altogether too slow. My Cousin Rachel tells the story of a young man named Philip (Sam Claflin) who becomes entangled in an intense, emotional relationship with his uncle’s widow Rachel (Rachel Weisz) following his untimely and somewhat mysterious death. The narrative progresses in a classically du Maurier fashion, that is to say with a lot of mood, a lot of atmosphere and a lot of melancholy, but in a 2017 context, I’m afraid the early nineteenth century set story falls a little flat. The central thread of the film is Philip’s suspicion of the seductive, enigmatic Rachel combined with his growing obsession for her, and though this type of narrative is often a safe bet when undertaken by talented actors with good source material, there is just something about My Cousin Rachel that feels rather plodding and predictable, and that is coming from somebody who had no foreknowledge of the novel’s plot.
A quick check on Rotten Tomatoes reveals that the film currently stands at a healthy 74%, a grade that I can’t help but feel is being given for the beautiful cinematography and solid acting performances rather than the overall package. With the Cornwall countryside and coast at their disposal, the filmmakers have certainly done a wonderful job of giving the picture that pleasing, comfortable backdrop and mise en scene that lovers of period drama expect. Where the problem arises is in the fact that, for a film exploring such themes as wealth, passion, obsession and murder, everything from one scene to the next feels disappointingly pedestrian. Key plot points unfold with little to no fanfare, simply because the audience can see each twist and turn from a mile away. No doubt the novel in 1951 would have caused a raised eyebrow or two, but in playing it so safe with this adaptation, the film fails to make the kind of impact that its central story once promised.
Don’t get me wrong, My Cousin Rachel is a solidly executed period drama that I am sure will tick most of the boxes for average du Maurier adaptation success, but in the grand scheme of things, the picture as a whole leaves a lot to be desired in terms of taking any kinds of risks with the story. It looks great, the cinematography is certainly the film’s greatest asset, but underneath the richness of the aesthetic there is a distinct lack of richness in terms of presenting modern audiences with an arresting take on a literary classic. Whether or not the filmmakers became too constrained by trying to remain faithful to the source material, I cannot say, but ultimately one word that comes to mind for an instant take is, quite simply, ‘meh’.
As the titular Rachel, Rachel Weisz is as beguiling and enchanting as you would expect her to be. Her dark, sultry features amidst a sea of pasty British blonde give her an immediate and intentional leg up in the memorability stakes, and aside from her enigmatic aesthetic, Weisz provides something of a masterclass in treading that thin character line between potential villain and potential innocent. It’s not an understatement to say that without her arresting, imposing performance, the film could well have been a complete bust.
This might be a little unfair on Sam Claflin, who as Philip is tasked with playing a rather insufferable man-child in the throws of romantic obsession. Claflin takes the character from being a well mannered, well meaning protege of his uncle’s to a man who makes all of the wrong choices as a result of being blinded by love. Though this character type is one seen throughout all genres of cinema, it doesn’t make his descent in to foolishness any less grating. Add to the mix Philip’s tendency to be loud and rash to the people who care for him, and Claflin is left to contend with portraying a protagonist who isn’t altogether likeable. If that is the intention, then it as a job well done, but if not, then the air of smugness that the actor exudes is even less enjoyable opposite Rachel Weisz’s more serene, accomplished performance.
Overall, My Cousin Rachel is a story that, without the benefit of a modernised adaptation, feels rather stale in 2017. In sticking with the original setting, the picture does nothing to set itself apart from any run of the mill TV movie retelling that the BBC might attempt. It’s the setting the no doubt affords the richest and most appealing period visuals, but it isn’t anything that we haven’t seen before. Despite a genuinely compelling central performance from Rachel Weisz, I feel the film is very much destined to join the ranks of the hundreds of other period dramas that enjoy a healthy television rotation before being forgotten in favour of the true classics of the genre.