A crucial scene of My Cousin Rachel takes place between our youthful male protagonist and his concerned godfather, as the elder warns of this new mysterious woman who has entered their lives. Not only is her past murky to everyone, but there have been rumours of a ‘limitless appetite’. In another scene, an old acquaintance of the woman speaks leerily of her ‘great passion’. In this classic adaptation, the eponymous widow takes audiences through twists and turns, but what this film strives to emphasise most is the very qualities that the time assigned to ‘dangerous women’.
An adaptation of the 1951 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, the story is set in mid-19th century Cornwall. We’re introduced to Philip Ashley, a 24 year old orphan who was raised in relative comfort by his cousin Ambrose (both played by Sam Claflin). His cousin has now died in mysterious circumstances in Italy, with only letters detailing ambiguous stories of his new wife Rachel (Rachel Weisz) left behind. Soon enough, Rachel reappears to visit Ambrose’s estate and in doing so, brings with her unclear intentions as to the new master of the house.
It must be said first that this film is a visual treat. From beautifully rich sets to a careful use of soft focus, it also utilises dramatic settings to elicit gasps from the audience. Costuming is also very careful – period appropriate, Rachel’s outfits transform as she gains power, from her many black drapings and mourning clothes to rich colours and stiff cravats that deliberately tie her into the male characters in shot. In one pivotal moment, she presents Philip with a gift after he presents her with an ostentatious pearl necklace. In a clear power play, her present is one single small pearl on a tie pin.
The central effort falls on that power play too, as the film takes us through the changing emotions of Philip as he tries to deduce the widow’s true thoughts. The director and writer Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Enduring Love) is not afraid either to shy away from the uncomfortable Oedipal relationship that bubbles under the surface. Philip is an orphan obsessed with his deceased mother, and he quickly falls for the older widow of a man who he openly names as a father figure. To further deal with their interactions, the narrative jumps from time to time in an experiment that doesn’t always work, but fortunately (and potentially in partial thanks to the book), the characters lend us enough.
This leads us to Rachel herself. Weisz embodies the characters with a performance that uses all her remarkable abilities as an actress, giving Rachel her essential mask whilst negotiating the twists and turns with comfort – from smiles that would charm even the coldest of hearts, to a disgusted sneer to elicit a mortified cower. Her ambiguity will leave audiences with plenty to talk about after the credits have rolled.
Most crucially, the way in which the character treated is ultimately a fascinating comment of the very period in which it’s set. Rachel’s sexual appetite is presented as the real danger, whilst her developing financial independence is also warned against multiple times by men in the film. She’s the ultimate fear of the time – a woman who will make her own choices, seek her own satisfaction and gain significant control.
Right from the start, she crushes Philip’s expectations with a power play that in the period seems significant: calling him to a meeting in his own house, offering him tea without expecting to make it. This show of female independence that is now recognised in many countries disarms Philip so much that he’s barely able to make it out the room standing. However, it’s a dangerous position to be in and in a pivotal reflection, the film and Weisz tackle it in a way that knocks the breath out of you. The decisions Rachel continues to make in their relationship feel like a fascinating comment on the way in which the character is a giant anachronism in her time, hopelessly stuck in a period that isn’t ready.
But that’s one reading. The main pull of My Cousin Rachel is that every reaction to this film will be deeply personal, and will pull on your own experience and perceptions, as excellent stories should. Enjoy the beautiful visuals, revel for the richness taken from the original novel but most of all, discover exactly what this film will tell you about yourself.