Film & Television

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

Weisz began her career while she was studying at Cambridge University, and has worked steadily on-stage and screen since. She won an Oscar for The Constant Gardener in 2006, when she was 36. Today, at age 47, she’s busier than ever, with three films in post-production and another announced for release in 2018. In the past year, she shone as a grieving wife and mother in The Light Between Oceans and a passionate Holocaust historian in Denial.

As Rachel, Weisz is inscrutable. She doesn’t give anything away, yet her performance never rings false. She deliberately charms everyone around her, including the local reverend, his two daughters and especially Philip, but ultimately keeps her own counsel.

Weisz is a decade older than the character as du Maurier originally wrote her. A wonderful bit of dialogue from the novel points, not only to the disparity in age between Rachel and Philip, but also to society’s sexist double standard.

“I would not be young again, if you offered me the world. But then I’m prejudiced.”

“You talk,” I said, “As if you were ninety-nine.”

“For a woman I very nearly am,” she said. “I’m thirty-five.”

Sam Claflin, who plays Philip in the new film (as well as Ambrose in flashbacks) is 16 years Weisz’s junior. Younger men with older women remain a novelty at the movies, and it would be rather exciting to watch if there was true passion (there’s not much) and if Claflin wasn’t so thoroughly outranked by Weisz. (His previous credits include starring roles in less thoughtful films: one of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies; three of the Hunger Games movies; and the romantic lead in Me Before You.) He is perfectly serviceable here, handsome and charismatic, but it’s hard to fully sympathize with him when Weisz’s Rachel is much deeper and so much more interesting.

This might be seen as a fairly major flaw in My Cousin Rachel. I prefer to regard it as a strength (although it may be an unplanned one). The movie is set up as a mystery, but as soon as Rachel appears, it becomes less a question of whether or not she poisoned Ambrose (or is plotting to do the same to Philip), and more about how a strong-willed woman can live independently in an age that restricts her freedom, financial and otherwise.

Philip has never met anyone like Rachel, and at first her decidedly un-English customs and lack of convention are tantalizing. But he is quick to apply the social mores he’s familiar with. He bristles at the expectation that he’ll marry his godfather’s daughter, but is shocked that Rachel might not want to marry him. “Can’t you let me be a person in my own right?” she pleads, “A woman who is making her way in the world?” The problem is that there aren’t any options for a woman to make her way without a vast deal of money — inherited, for example, upon the untimely and suspicious death of her husband. And, we’re back to the beginning.

All in all, the film moves fairly slowly until Philip is driven mad by his love for Rachel (or by her poison tea, perhaps?) at which point it accelerates too rapidly. And, the new movie changes the ending of duMaurier’s book in a rather significant way, which may recast perceived villains and victims, and vice versa. There is though, as in the book, some ambivalence and one would hope that the late author would be happy with it (and with Weisz’s hairstyle).

My Cousin Rachel is presented as a gothic thriller. But it is neither as gothic nor as thrilling as it promises to be. It does offer up a fascinating, if unfinished, portrait of a woman’s attempt to buck a system that affords her less autonomy than her intelligence and sensitivity demand. Her situation is disheartening and, for her, untenable.

Whether that’s justification for murder is up for debate.


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