Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Author Daphne du Maurier’s works often cast “love” as the villain. If she were still alive, my question to her would be, “WHO hurt you?!” Love gets dragged through the gutter. It’s not something to be romantically painted in broad strokes or cloaked in large swaths of vibrant fabric. It’s a sickness – a disease – for all victims who discover it. It only leads to torment and death. Never have her themes felt more alive than in writer-director Roger Michell’s MY COUSIN RACHEL. His adaptation of du Maurier’s novel takes things a few necessary steps farther than the 1952 cinematic iteration did. While it remains a haunting, compelling Gothic drama with sinister, shadowy underpinnings, Michell has brought the shockingly-timely text back into modern relevancy by reinvigorating the novel’s feminist bent.
Our tortured tale of love and woe involves that of Philip (Sam Claflin) and his cousin by marriage, Rachel Ashley (Rachel Weisz). She’s recently been widowed by Philip’s father figure/ cousin Ambrose (who is largely never shown), who suspected his bride of slowly trying to kill him. Philip, desperately wanting to avenge Ambrose’s death, invites Rachel to the Ashley family estate under the pretense of helping her. However, his hatred morphs into obsession once he gets to know her. She ignites suspicion and passion in him – something like he’s never known before, and doesn’t know how to properly express. He grapples with doubts over Ambrose’s allegations of Rachel’s deceit and duplicitous actions. He refuses to listen to his godfather/ estate guardian Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), nor Kendall’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), who, of course, is nursing a crush on Philip. Ambrose’s unverified and unsigned will, one that leaves the entire estate to her, looms over their tryst, adding further distrust to her claims – at least to everyone but Philip.
Paranoia. Jealously. An unhealthy relationship that doesn’t masquerade as anything but. Is Rachel playing Philip or not? You’ll feel differently at different times. The genius of this story is that it will zig when you zag, keeping you on your toes. Though this is primarily told through the eyes of the male protagonist, Michell never forgets that he’s allowed two dueling perspectives to play around with – something the previous version neglected to do. Not only do we see how tortured Philip becomes (thanks mainly to his own self-infliction and Claflin’s delicate work, finely balancing Philip’s salty and sweet aspects), and what sway she has over everyone (even the dogs!), there’s more keen insight into the reluctant antagonist’s inner workings. This is also courtesy of a precise performance by Weisz, who is at her slipperiest here. She’s a widow twice over, beset with grief at what the rest of her life brings. She’s damned whether or not she embraces love with a younger man. It’s bleak AF, but astutely essential and crucial to understanding. Plus, they also take more time to cultivate their romance, enriching their relationship, leading to a deeper earned payoff emotionally.
Michell also expands on a few more points without dragging down to the narrative. Rael Jones’ unobtrusive score is integral to hammering home subtle points. Visually, Michell and cinematographer Mike Eley layer in character dimension by playing with light and dark. They slyly speaks to Rachel’s worn-down psyche in the scene where Philip has his way with her in a blooming bluebell field, equating her mindset with that of the squashed, formerly beautiful flowers. They both relishes the dramatic sting of Rachel’s pearl necklace – symbolically representing love and beauty – breaking at Philip’s violent hand and cascading unstrung pearls down the opulent staircase. And Michell also has one of the characters swear, cutting the tension with needed levity.
Du Maurier’s puzzle pieces line up better in Michell’s film. This iteration casts further doubt on her ulterior motives as gossip about being extravagant and rumors of “loose living” circulate. The suspicion is assuredly on Rachel, but morseso on Philip, whose brute-like motivations seem worse than her alleged ones. Society may cast her as a gold-digger, but isn’t he worse because he wants to subjugate her? Michell isn’t afraid to pose this as his cinematic forbears were. Warnings from Philip’s friends and family are placed differently, which ever so slightly tweaks how dramatic situations play out. Where and when Philip gives Rachel the contract also differs, augmenting the ambiguity of her assumed reasoning. For the betterment of the gripping story at hand, sly differences in dialogue also pervade. Some lines make her appear more innocent rather than the unapologetic hustler Philip believes she is: “It was to thank you for your kindness.” compared to the line in the 1952 version, “You had just given me the jewels”.
MY COUSIN RACHEL is an impeccably crafted feature from Michell and Company – one that never loses the keys to understanding the author’s voice.
MY COUSIN RACHEL opens on June 9.