When his father figure cousin marries another distant relative, Rachel in Italy, and rapidly declines in health, Philip (Sam Claflin as a volatile Hugh Grant type) is sure Rachel is after his inheritance. But when she appears at his house in the figure of that centre of gravitas Rachel Weisz, Philip is immediately lost to her charismatic beauty. Thus begins a psycho-sexual game of control that certainly fits the mold we expect from a Daphne Du Maurier adaptation, she of dueling Hitchcock masterpieces Rebecca and The Birds.
Yet despite having an enjoyable enough story line and a madcap performance from Sam Calfin, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. This is nothing new for director Roger Michell, who overreaches with his technicality on films like Changing Lanes and Enduring Love, leaving at the side precise mise-en-scene which makes middle-brow production into expert craft.
This might seem glib, for My Cousin Rachel does possess a visual style that makes this more striking than a standard BBC adaptation, but often these visual touches occur without rhyme or reason. A handheld shot mounted on the front of a carriage, but it isn’t to signify grit or realism, and it isn’t held long enough to give the viewer a closer glimpse at the characters it captures.
In one hyperactive dream sequence the audience is shown a flash of Rachel copulating with the Priest, a minor character. But neither in staging nor plot does this image relate to anything that occurs in the reality of the story. It is one thing to use twisted dream logic to dig inside our relationships with characters, as David Lynch proves weekly on Twin Peaks. But this image arbitrarily combines the sexuality of Rachel with the supposed piousness of the Priest. It is not an inversion; it is lazy.
Mitchell confuses the mysterious for the aloof. This is more teen romance than Gothic horror, eschewing Rachel’s perspective aside from one sequence in the bluebells, in which the camera suddenly captures her in a horrified close up. Will the film now reveal her perspective, in a Victorian-era Gone Girl twist, as The Handmaiden so triumphantly achieved? Such a subversion of the predicted narrative would have been welcome here, as My Cousin Rachel follows all the expected beats, simplifying the novel and wasting every element it had which could have made a memorable film. Weisz deserves better. Du Maurier deserves better.