Roger Michell’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel My Cousin Rachel peddles in interesting camera work, astonishing visuals, and solid performances, but lacks a thorough command of tone. The film feels obsessed with the ambiguity of its central romantic mystery, while at the same time laying on the cinematic clues with an unbelievably heavy hand. There’s fascinating technique in the expression of the mystery and the characters involved in it, but the execution misses often enough to infuse the film with an uneven mood. This makes it hard to understand when to take the ambiguity seriously and when to embrace the apparent obviousness of it all.
My Cousin Rachel is a story of English aristocracy and white-bread love. Phillip (Sam Claflin) is taken in at a young age by his cousin Ambrose, who comes to be like a father to him. Ambrose’s worsening health forces him to spend the winter in Italy, where he falls for his cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz). The two marry, and Phillip’s suspicion over Rachel’s motives grows with each new letter from Ambrose. Eventually, he receives a letter attesting that Rachel is poisoning Ambrose, so he sets off to Italy. But, Ambrose has already died.
Rachel comes to stay at the estate, being held by the family lawyer Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) until Phillip’s 25th birthday. Though initially steadfast in his mistrust of Rachel, Phillips warms up to her at an alarming pace. She very often serves him weird-tasting tea (the camera makes sure to draw our attention; more on that soon). She wraps Phillip around her little finger in no time, and the obviousness of it is a bit tiresome. Perhaps we’re meant to chide Phillip for his youthful romantic exuberance, but mostly he just comes off as a moron. My Cousin Rachel drifts dangerously close to an “Idiot Plot”. And that’s being kind.
In addition to characters acting stupid (mostly Phillip, but others are kind of dumb, too), there is a tired over-reliance on hidden notes and letters to spurn things along. I lost count at the third note found in a coat pocket or placed between pages in a book that suggest that just maybe Rachel is after Phillip’s money, and just maybe she killed Ambrose. A single note like this can serve as an inciting event or a MacGuffin without being too distracting, but when the plot needs to be jump-started by note after note after note, it is easy to lose interest in the proceedings.
All that being said, the film is a treat to behold from a visual standpoint. The Cornish countryside is gorgeous, in particular a picnic scene with blossoming blue bells. The camera often shoots in natural light, with a heavy reliance on close-ups and odd framing choices. There’s also an adventurous style of using focus to convey specific meaning. There are many instances in the film where the character speaking is blatantly out of focus, so you are encouraged to direct your attention not to what is being said or who is speaking, but how a certain character reacts. The same technique is used to draw attention to certain items that are important, like the aforementioned “poisoned” tea. The set design and the costuming is impeccable, and really draws the viewer into the world.
When these stylistic choices are used to enrich the characters and their relationships, My Cousin Rachel is a great example of strong visual storytelling. When it triple-underlines an obvious plot element, it just feels on-the-nose. This is the chief weirdness of My Cousin Rachel: is it trying for obvious, or for ambiguity? By the end, it feels like it wants it both ways, which just does not work out. The tone becomes unbalanced. It isn’t a severe unbalance, like what we just saw with something like War Machine, but it is enough to stick in a viewer’s craw and leave the whole thing with an unsatisfying taste.
My Cousin Rachel isn’t a bad movie by any stretch, but it leaves much to be desired from a plot and character perspective. The pretty English countryside and candlelit rooms offer some attractive shots to focus on, and the camerawork is purposeful, interesting, and an example of nuanced visual storytelling. Fans of du Maurier’s style and subject matter will likely find the story is one worth experiencing if only for the gorgeous set design and costumes, but the unbalanced tone and the tension between the obvious and the ambiguous may throw off others.