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FILM REVIEW: Madness, murder, mystery... Rachel Weiss keeps us guessing in this fine adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel (12A)
Running time 1h 46min
Rating ****

DAPHNE du Maurier’s eclectic work – spanning thriller, mystery and period romance – remains one of Britain’s outstanding literary legacies, and her adaptation to screen (The Birds, Jamaica Inn, Don’t Look Now) has proven a curiously seamless business. It’s not hard to see why – here is a writer that dabbled in a uniquely cinematic form of storytelling, High Gothic tales of loss and forbidden desire, of the tragic subjectivity of memory.

This reimagining of her 1951 classic marks a return to familiar turf (it being no less than the third filmed version, including a BBC mini-series of 1983), but, like the best costume efforts of recent years, it lands firmly on its feet where it might otherwise have descended into bodice-ripping farce. The precocious Philip (Sam Claflin) grows up in a bleakly idyllic
Cornwall, mentored by Ambrose, a doting relative who, ultimately, confers upon the young ’un his sprawling estate in the aftermath of his death. Trouble is afoot, however, with the appearance of Rachel (Rachel Weisz), Ambrose’s strikingly beautiful widow, who Philip suspects of orchestrating his friend’s death. Rachel, by turns foxy, gracious and cruel, appears to have sinister designs upon the naïve young specimen...

The text’s more Freudian dimensions, lacking (for obvious reasons) in older renditions, are quite openly flaunted here; it’s
creakingly unsubtle, sure (some of the bedside scenes flirt with out-and-out camp), but Weisz carries it off expertly – somehow, her slipping Philip a ‘secret’ concoction at night isn’t the eye-roller it might otherwise have been. There’s some very explicit commentary on gender, breathing new life into the source material – watching this sorry affair run its course, one gets the impression that Rachel, vindictive and disquietingly ambiguous a presence as she can be, is simply a disenfranchised woman out to make the best that she can of sad circumstances, something quite apart from the straightforward femme fatale of the novel. Philip, meanwhile, emerges as an elegant buffoon, an entitled aristocratic boy trapped in a man’s body (he is said to have been raised in a womanless household, and Claflin betrays a very believable, doe-eyed awkwardness). His selfish infatuation with Rachel is basically inseparable from his perverse fascination with the mystery of Ambrose’s death; it’s a ‘romance’, yes, but as pathological and quietly sordid a romance as you could hope to find.

The film’s macabre landscape finds few obvious parallels in modern cinema – its plot, often lacking in coherent detail (like life itself, then?), is commanded by aesthetic and sound (all pianos, clocks and distant church-bells). This really isn’t
everyone’s cup of tea – those looking for a more conventionally cerebral experience will tire of its devotion to sensation and metaphor – but it is precisely this atmosphere and emotional intelligence which earns it its place among the finest du Maurier adaptations.

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