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D: Roger Michell / 106m

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen, Pierfrancesco Favino, Simon Russell Beale, Tim Barlow

Philip Ashley (Claflin) is a young man whose guardian, Ambrose Ashley, owns a large Cornish estate. When Ambrose travels to Italy, his letters home tell of a woman he’s met, their mutual cousin, Rachel (Weisz). They are married, but it’s not long before Ambrose falls ill. His letters become increasingly paranoid, with claims that Rachel is watching him closely and that he can trust no one, and so Philip travels to Italy and the villa where Ambrose is living. There he meets Rainaldi (Favino), a friend of Rachel’s who tells Philip that Ambrose has died of a brain tumour. Philip returns home without meeting Rachel, and once there, he inherits the estate. Blaming Rachel for Ambrose’s death (he doesn’t believe there was a brain tumour), he makes it clear that if they ever meet he will exact a punishment on her. Not long after, though, Rachel arrives at the estate, and despite his vengeful intentions, Philip finds himself fascinated by her.

A relationship begins to develop between them, a friendship at first, and one that is welcomed by his godfather, Nick Kendall (Glen). Philip soon becomes infatuated with Rachel, and reacts poorly to tales of her misbehaviour in Italy with Rainaldi. Goaded by such gossip, Philip ensures she has an allowance (which she spends too rapidly), and at an estate party, wears a pearl necklace that was his mother’s. Kendall is none too happy with this, but Rachel returns them without any fuss. With his twenty-fifth birthday approaching – when he can do whatever he likes with his inheritance – Philip has a transfer written whereby Rachel becomes the estate’s owner. In return he expects Rachel to marry him, but she denies him, and despite their friendship having become intimate. And then Philip falls ill, and the similarities between his illness and Ambrose’s leads him to suspect that Rachel is now poisoning him…

A late arrival in the remake stakes, My Cousin Rachel appears sixty-five years on from its predecessor, and offers several good reasons for the gap being longer. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, Roger Michell’s adaptation is a heady exercise in turgid melodrama that does little with its “Did she? Didn’t she? Is she? Isn’t she?” storyline, and instead of concentrating on the thriller elements, turns to a one-sided romance for its focus. This means there are plenty of scenes where Claflin’s love-sick booby hovers over and around Weisz’s prideful widow, and with the worst kind of eager beaver-itis. That Philip goes from determined avenger to smitten teenager (even though he’s twenty-four) in the blink of an eye, should alert viewers that this isn’t going to be an engrossing Gothic-tinged chiller, but a romantic drama with all the fizzle of a sparkler reaching the end of its lifespan. Philip’s actions in pursuit of Rachel’s affections become more and more absurd the longer they go on, until they culminate in his climbing up to her bedroom window in order to bestow on her the family jewellery (and in the process  his own jewels). (Oh, and he climbs down again the next morning.)

In between all this uninspiring swooning, the movie remembers to include scenes that paint Rachel as some kind of predatory black widow (as well as Ambrose’s sad demise, her first husband was killed in a duel). This secondary plot (which should be the movie’s primary one), relies heavily on Ambrose having left hidden notes and letters in his clothing and books, and their being conveniently found just when Rachel’s potential perfidy needs a nudge in the right direction. Out of this, any ambiguity is brushed aside as Michell’s script lacks the panache to sow doubt in the mind of the viewer. And if you’re familiar with the novel or Henry Koster’s 1952 version, then you’ll already know the outcome, something that Michell fumbles badly thanks to a very, very clumsy piece of foreshadowing, and an equally clumsy denouement.

Against this, Weisz delivers an arresting performance that in many ways highlights the paucity of ideas and the lack of energy that the movie exhibits elsewhere. Weisz’s career can safely be described as eclectic, and in recent years she’s done some of her best work. As Rachel, Weisz is an hypnotic presence, her round, moon-faced features expressing vulnerability, pride, determination, gratitude and forbearance in equal measure. As the naïve Philip, Claflin has the harder task, and he doesn’t always succeed, but this is due more to the script than his portrayal, as the character is more callow than necessary, and he operates on a dramatic level that never allows the viewer to feel sorry for him. Grainger (as Kendall’s daughter) and Glen offer solid support, while there’s a terrific turn from Barlow as the estate’s chief overseer, Secombe. It’s all wrapped up in a bucolic haze that’s further enhanced by Mike Eley’s evocative cinematography and Alice Normington’s impressive production design.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie that could have been a whole lot better had its writer/director tried harder to make it more compelling, and more of a psychological thriller, My Cousin Rachel is undermined by its inability to seem more than a stifled piece of moviemaking; Weisz’s performance almost makes up for its obvious shortcomings, but if you have to see this then adjust your expectations accordingly.

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