It's not easy to write a compelling story with a protagonist who's a clueless nincompoop, but midcentury best seller Daphne du Maurier excelled at it. In her Rebecca (1938), the deceased title character way overshadows the mousy heroine. And in My Cousin Rachel (1951), set in the Victorian era, the callow hero is no match for his titular cousin, a worldly older woman who fascinates and frightens him in equal measures.
In the 1952 film adaptation of Rachel, Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland played those roles. Now the novel has returned to the screen, with veteran director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Le Week-End) at the helm. It remains a strange little story — too ambivalent for a romance, too quiet for a thriller, too open-ended for a mystery. But in Rachel Weisz, it has found an actor who makes the title character at once appropriately ambiguous and intensely magnetic.
Sam Claflin plays Philip Ashley, an orphan who was raised by his older cousin, Ambrose, on a rugged Cornish coastal estate. Philip's brief schooling in the city taught him that he doesn't like "clever talk," he informs us, and that preference pretty much sums him up.
It also exacerbates Philip's initial distrust of Rachel, a (distant) Ashley cousin whom Ambrose married in Italy shortly before his death. A mysterious missive, in which Ambrose blames his bride for his illness, leads Philip to suspect foul play. But Ambrose left Rachel out of his will, suggesting that if she is indeed a black widow, she's none too skillful in the web-spinning department.
When Rachel arrives in Cornwall for a visit, the audience's anticipation runs as high as Philip's. The young man is shocked to find the widow attractive, forthright and sensitive; raised in a nearly all-male world, he does a 180 and develops a massive crush on his kinswoman. Heir to the entire estate, Philip has the power to secure Rachel's future in one romantic gesture. But if he does, will he discover she's not what she appears?
The engine of the story is its limited perspective. We know Philip is hopelessly naïve; at one point, Rachel accurately refers to him as a "puppy." But — with the exception of one brief, key shot — we only see Rachel through his eyes.
Michell stages their candlelit conversations in intimate close-ups where peripheral objects begin to blur, suggesting a skewed perspective, then widens his view for pictorial scenes of the estate. Overall, this is a gorgeous-looking film, with an attention to the pastoral routines of rural life reminiscent of the 2015 version of Far From the Madding Crowd.
But viewers hoping for a straight shot of Victorian romance will be disappointed. The 1952 film version hinges on the question of whether Rachel is a sweet, loving figure or a cheating murderess — a Madonna or a whore, in other words. Weisz gives more depth to the role by evoking a third possibility: Maybe this mysterious woman just wants to live life on her own terms. Manipulative she may be, but her position is tricky, and our poor hero is all but begging to be manipulated.
Rachel is a slight story, leading to more of an ironic fizzle than a grand climax. Yet it has a moral complexity that the so-called "psychological thrillers" in our multiplexes often lack. Du Maurier knew that, on some level, we always sympathize more with evil masterminds than with their dupes. And she had the chutzpah to keep us guessing even after the end.