Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: "My Cousin Rachel"

“My Cousin Rachel” is a tale of revenge, love and especially  betrayal -- how we are betrayed, how we betray others, and even ourselves.

It’s based on the 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, which was previously adapted for the screen in a 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland. (Who’s blessedly still with us, turning 101 on July 1.) Set in the 19th century, Rachel Weisz plays the title character, a mysterious woman who is suspected of manipulating and murdering her husband, only to turn the same tactics on his heir.

Sam Claflin plays Philip Ashley, heir to the estate and fortune of his cousin Ambrose, who adopted him after he was orphaned and raised Philip as his own son. Consumed by ill health, Ambrose is sent to Italy to recover, where the lifelong bachelor unexpectedly meets and marries Rachel, who is his distant cousin (and therefore Philip’s).

But his letters turn sinister, complaining of being kept isolated by his wife, having his correspondence monitored or confiscated, constant headaches, etc. Philip, grown to young manhood, finally comes to the rescue to find Ambrose dead and Rachel fled with all his effects.

He suspects greed is the motive, but is surprised to learn from the stalwart family friend and attorney, Kendall (Iain Glen), that everything has been left to him with no provision for the wife. He soon settles into the life of a wealthy landowner. He’s a kind master, working side-by-side with the servants in the field.

His betrothal to Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), seems preordained – though Philip labors strenuously to deny the obvious. She’s intelligent, kind and loyal, and Philip seems a good sort, too, if a tad impulsive and self-centered.

Everything gets flipped with Rachel comes for an extended visit. Philip is determined to confront her over her treatment of Ambrose, but quickly finds himself outwitted by the older, wily woman. It’s not long before he himself becomes infatuated, leading to a maze of conflicting emotions and impulses.

Weisz, who might just be the consistently finest actress working in film today, is all subtlety and misdirection in this performance. We’re expecting a harpy and instead Rachel is ladylike, demur -- a bit prudish even. She sets boundaries, but leaves just enough bait for an impressionable young man to pick up the scent, and follow.

We’re sure she’s putting him on. There are whispers of a past filled with insatiable sexual appetite, profligate spending, shady companions. But the woman before Philip seems completely opposite of all that. Is he being conned, or conning himself?

“Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” he wonders.

Essentially penniless, Rachel leans upon Philip for financial and emotional support, playing the widow card at every turn. Whenever social occasions arise, out comes her black veil. She brews strange teas of sour taste and supposed medicinal qualities, healing one of the servants. Philip jokes they’ll dub her a witch.

Adapted and directed by Roger Michell (“Changing Lanes”), “My Cousin Rachel” is a hauntingly beautiful film about human decay. Ashley manor serves as visual reflection of this in reverse, as the shabby house full of dogs and dust gradually becomes spruced up by Rachel into something more appropriate to her (acquired) station. As Philip’s home is restored and he grows more ensorcelled, his sense of self diminishes, like a clear pool grown cloudy.

The film is deliberately paced, and we spend the slow bits wondering how Philip could behave so foolishly. But he’s essentially a boy, raised as a stranger to womenfolk, reveling in his privilege. Philip certainly isn’t the first to confuse sex and love.

Is Rachel maneuvering him to her own ends? Certainly. But is she guilty of the crimes he suspects were committed against Ambrose, and now him? “My Cousin Rachel” is never quite the movie we expect.

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