Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel has been adapted before, but not as effectively as in Roger Michell’s new version starring Rachel Weisz in the lead role. A proper did-she, didn’t-she 19th Century gothic mystery, My Cousin Rachel will certainly scratch where Du Maurier fans are itching.
Weisz is very effective as the mysterious Rachel, who comes to stay with young and rather naïve English landowner Phillip (Sam Claflin) when her husband, Phillip’s older cousin and guardian, dies in Italy. Initially Phillip suspects Rachel of murder, but soon begins to fall for her beguiling charms. However the question remains: did she secretly murder her husband? Is she now attempting to manipulate Phillip to obtain the inheritance which was inexplicably denied to her in her late husband’s will?
The entire cast, which includes support from the likes of Holliday Grainger and Iain Glen, are good. Michell directs with atmospheric flair, his visual influences including David Lean’s classic 1946 version of Great Expectations, and John Schlesinger’s massively underrated 1967 take on Far from the Madding Crowd. His adaptation cleverly builds an atmosphere of unease, with fine use of moody Cornish landscapes, pleasing layers of ambiguity and Freudian undertones (“Now go to bed like a good boy…” Rachel tells Phillip at one point).
However, most of the credit must go to Weisz and Claflin, who have a tremendously creepy chemistry. Weisz in particular convinces, her nuanced performance teasingly asking the endless questions: What does she really want? Is she playing Phillip for a fool? Is she a murderess? Or is she a misjudged victim of circumstance? Du Maurier was reportedly disappointed with the 1952 Olivia de Havilland version, but I think she would have approved of Rachel Weisz.