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Wondering About Rachel Weisz as 'My Cousin Rachel'

Jun. 13, 2017
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Rachel Weisz as Rachel Ashley in My Cousin Rachel

“Did she? Didn’t she? Who is to blame?” Philip asks himself as My Cousin Rachel begins. The latest film adaptation of a story by Daphne du Maurier (whose writings gave rise to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds) concerns doubt gone seriously wrong. Du Maurier the author wasn’t persuaded by the allure of happy endings. Uncertainty and the inscrutability at the heart of existence wind through her writings and into her conclusions. Think of the ending of The Birds: hundreds of predatory seagulls suddenly calm, eying the humans, who carefully retreat through their ranks, as if in a sudden gesture of inexplicable tolerance. Will they attack again?

My Cousin Rachel

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin
Director: Roger Michell
Rated: PG-13

My Cousin Rachel is set in a favorite du Maurier haunt, 19th-century Cornwall, whose rough green country is edged in cliffs and sand. Philip (Sam Claflin) will inherit a red brick manor with a yard full of scratching chickens. Loyal servants bent with age attend him, their future master once he turns 25. The story is propulsive in early scenes as Philip and his godfather-guardian read letters sent from faraway Italy by cousin Ambrose, whom Philip holds dear in flashes of childhood memory. The missives tell of happiness, especially concerning Ambrose’s wife, their distant cousin. Rachel is described as radiant, good, kind—until the messages darken with paranoia. Ambrose is suddenly afraid of his wife and surrounded by sinister Italians; he doesn’t trust his doctor; he dies.

Rachel endeavors to visit Philip, the cousin she never met. He girds himself for the encounter with roiling hatred. Although a death certificate and detailed postmortem show that Ambrose perished from a brain tumor that evidently disordered his mind, Philip is unconvinced of Rachel’s innocence in the matter—until he is convinced, and then he’s not…

Perhaps if Rachel (Rachel Weisz) wasn’t so beautiful outdoors under her lacey black widow’s veil, and yet so commonsensical and considerate when in the manor house, Philip might have remained adamant in his suspicion. But although fast approaching 25, he’s known little of women and is a boy emotionally, not a man. He becomes infatuated with her to the edge of madness and sulks when her attentions turn away. He refuses to listen to rumors of Rachel’s sexually adventurous past and then follows her to town to spy on her. He sees her with her flamboyant Italian friend—but what is it that she sees? Perception can be a dimension of distorted images framed by expectations. The truth might be larger than Philip’s field of vision.

Director Roger Michell makes good contrast with light and darkness, the bright daylight of Cornwall and the nocturnal interior of the manor where Philip and Rachel come to know each other in pale candlelight. She feeds him bitter tea according to her own recipe and, like Ambrose, he begins to feel ill. His hallucinations are sharply filmed, but raise more unanswered questions in a world of mixed and unclear motives. Is Rachel emotionally calculating or simply projecting her love for Ambrose onto Philip, whom he resembles? Is she a fortune hunter or a woman determined to free herself from society’s strictures? A killer who decides not to kill? “Did she? Didn’t she?”

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