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My Cousin Rachel (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Impressively mysterious without being coy."
4 stars

As soon as I'm done doing the same thing with Raymond Chandler, I should start working through the novels of Daphne Du Maurier, and for much the same reason - there have been enough absolutely fantastic movies made from them to make a deep dive worth it. This version of "My Cousin Rachel" may not be in the absolute top echelon - Hitchcock adapted three of her works, after all - but it's a strong period thriller with an especially impressive performance by Rachel Weisz as the title character.

She is not the main character, though; that is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin). Orphaned at a young age and raised by Ambrose, a bachelor cousin, he took easily to country life. In recent years, his guardian fell ill and moved to Italy for his health, soon marrying a more distant cousin. His last letter home indicated he was a virtual prisoner of wife Rachel, and by the time Philip makes it to Milan to investigate, Ambrose has died. The local coroner says the brain tumor that took him often causes paranoia and hallucination, but it's suspicious how quickly Rachel cleared out when the will revealed that Philip was the sole heir. Philip is indisposed to view her favorably before she arrives at her late husband's estate, but instead finds himself quite taken with the beautiful, worldly widow (Weisz). Maybe all that talk of her poisoning him really was just the tumor talking.

The Ashley estate is on the ocean, but the view of that coastline that opens the movie reminds one less of a beach or even craggy cliffs than a crater, a gaping hole blasted out of the countryside that matches up with the losses Philip has suffered and the void that growing up with a man who had no use for women could not fill. It's not that Philip has been completely sequestered from the fair sex - Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger), daughter of his godfather (Iain Glen), is his best friend a more sensible man nineteenth-century man would probably already be married to her - but he's clearly unprepared for the likes of Rachel when she shows up. The filmmakers led by screenwriter/director Roger Michell deftly illustrate this with a few well-chosen bits of narration and some time spent around the estate that nicely serve to make Philip likable in how he works alongside the hands and retains his cousin's people rather than the stuffy servants of a young aristocrat; it's an undeniably masculine environment, functional and untidy, devoid of romantic or sexual intrigue. Michell keeps things about two steps from being slovenly-man stereotypes, leaving plenty of room for a transformation when Rachel becomes part of the scene.

Sam Claflin's Philip is not always quite so well-drawn as the environment that informs him. He's got a tricky job, in that even when the audience is inclined to agree with the conclusions he has reached about Rachel at a given moment, the way he got to them is usually suspect. The film impresses by playing on its protagonist's naiveté in a way that few of its type do convincingly; danger signs seem far brighter than is typical at the start, but it seems reasonable enough that this man would overlook them, enough so that by the time the audience is starting to wonder if they were mistaken, it feels perfectly natural, not the result of being manipulated in the same way. Clafllin mostly does a good job of walking that line, and if he occasionally errs on the side of Philip being flagrantly foolish, that's better than being too muted.

Rachel Weisz is fantastic as the title character, happily; the entire film would fall apart if she were otherwise. From start to finish, the film requires that the audience believe a wide range of things are possible from her, with each scene plausibly able to read as Rachel either being a cunning schemer or a woman capable of poor judgment despite her sophistication in other areas. She masks this work as the sign of a full, human personality, rather than deliberate misdirection; this character introduced in large part as a puzzle to solve becomes a more human sort of mystery.

It's a crucial shift, because it highlights how, even as the characters feel they are making progress in solving a mystery, Philip is undergoing a perhaps-belated coming of age that has him having to come to terms with uncertainty. Michell may have been hiding information earlier, but even as he did so, things were pointed - scenes of the young Philip with Ambrose had a nostalgic cast, Louise and her father were uniformly friendly and supportive, and at any given time, it was easy to assume Rachel was one thing or another. By the time the climax arrives, though, Philip has seen that he can't necessarily be sure of anything, and that may be a harder lesson to handle than just realizing that some people may be out to do him harm.

It makes for a finale that may, initially, seem anticlimactic, but is as a result more unsettling, a fear that lingers in a way that something more certain may not, and a clever contrast to the visually-lighter cast the film has by its end. It's an impressive bit of work when the same sort of thing can often come across as messy and unsatisfying.

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originally posted: 06/20/17 03:12:25
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User Comments

6/20/17 Bob Dog Not many films/novels are brave enough to be this ambiguous! 5 stars
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  09-Jun-2017 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Aug-2017

  09-Jun-2017 (12A)

  08-Jun-2017 (M)
  DVD: 29-Aug-2017

Directed by
  Roger Michell

Written by
  Roger Michell

  Sam Claflin
  Rachel Weisz
  Holliday Grainger
  Iain Glen
  Andrew Knott
  Poppy Lee Friar

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