Film & Television

‘My Cousin Rachel’ — Black Widow or Frustrated Feminist?

A notorious reputation. A penchant for mixing her own teas. And, the rambling accusations of a mad man. This is the evidence that mounts against the titular heroine of Roger Michell’s new movie My Cousin Rachel.

Even more damning is the utterly unforgivable fact that she longs to be her own woman in a man’s world.

My Cousin Rachel is based on the acclaimed 1951 novel by Daphne duMaurier. Like her better known classic Rebecca, it’s a gothic and romantic mystery. And like that more familiar title, it revolves around an unconventional woman who may or may not be evil incarnate. (Although unlike Rebecca, Rachel is still very much alive.)

The narrator, Philip Ashley, is an orphan, raised by his older and determinedly unmarried cousin Ambrose on the Cornwall coast. There’s a deep friendship and love between the two. Ambrose’s health requires him to spend time in a warmer climate, and, in Florence, he meets and falls in love with a widowed cousin, named Rachel. He marries, but soon becomes ill, and by the time a distressed Philip rushes to Italy, he has died. Philip, who is Ambrose’s heir despite the man’s recent marriage, blames the widow and vows vengeance. However, when she arrives at his estate, Philip’s mood quickly turns from revenge to romance. Rachel is by turns irresistibly helpless and irrepressibly accomplished. She is quite beautiful and the younger, inexperienced Philip is smitten. He provides her with a generous allowance and invites her to live with him. Rachel has expensive tastes and a rather contemporary way of thanking him. Soon, he is so completely in her thrall that — despite the concerns of his godfather among others — he gifts her his entire estate. He assumes she’ll marry him, and is shocked when she refuses. Then, as he mysteriously falls ill, his suspicions are reawakened. But, is it too late?

The first film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel was produced within a year of the novel’s publishing and starred Oscar-winner Olivia deHavilland. Legendary director George Cukor was assigned to the project, but left when he along with duMaurier herself had issues with the script. They felt that the movie was walking away from some of the darker mystery of the novel. DuMaurier publicly called it, “Quite desperate,” and also criticized the look of the film, in particular likening DeHavilland’s hairstyle to that of Wallis Simpson, the scandalous Duchess of Windsor. However, Henry Koster replaced Cukor and the movie was well-received. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and notably earned a Golden Globe for “New Star of the Year,” a young Richard Burton. The original film, like Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca twelve years earlier, was shot and released in black and white.

The new movie is in color, of course. This affords us magnificent vistas of the sweeping Cornish coast and tantalizing glimpses of Florence. The sets and wardrobe, two of the most delicious aspects for those of us who relish costume dramas, are sumptuous, although, sadly, suitably, the main character is always in black. In comparison to the 1952 film, Michell promised that his adaptation would be, “Detailed, dark, sexy, cinematic and full of surprises.”

Having now seen the film, I would counter that it’s missing some rather important details, is not as dark as the trailer would lead you to believe, could be a lot sexier, and isn’t ever much of a surprise.

What it does have, however, is Rachel Weisz.

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