Slow-burning, enigmatic thriller doesn’t fully come together

Max Redmond Smith on Roger Michel’s ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (2017)

My Cousin Rachel, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s (Rebecca) gothic romance novel of the same name, is a film of great potential that has sadly suffered from a lack of thoughtful writing and confident direction. At most, this is a visually decadent vehicle for Rachel Weisz’s acting talent.

On numerous occasions, both the impressively meticulous mise-en-scène and the visually stunning British landscape outshine the (lack of) on-screen chemistry between Sam Claflin and Weisz, with Weisz in particular pulling her own weight alongside that of Claflin’s. It would perhaps be too harsh to say that Claflin is hopeless, but he deserved more direction, for he jarringly overacts at every opportunity in a try-hard attempt to showcase his dramatic acting potential. As a result, his performance is too theatrical and emotionally unbelievable in what is an otherwise serious period piece. Claflin is miscast as Philip, the man who falls under the spell of the enigmatic Rachel. Although a competent enough actor, he is yet unable to transcend beyond supporting eye-candy that audiences have come to recognise him for; it is apparent that he still needs to expand his body of work and continue to practise the craft over the coming years to function as an appealing leading man.

Alternatively, the seasoned Weisz delivers two equally convincing and enthralling performances, both as Philip’s lover and tormenter. Weisz makes instantly shifting emotional registers appear effortless, and possesses such a strong command of the emotional spectrum that she can make the character of Rachel forever ambiguous with eyes that appear deeply sad, conniving, and overwhelmed all at once (the uncomfortable sex scene in the woods comes to mind). As a result, despite My Cousin Rachel revolving largely around Phillip, Rachel is the character with depth, the one whose allure intrigues us. Weisz fits the role well, and had the film’s mystery not revolved around her ambiguous and enigmatic character, it would have been so pleasant to have seen her character thoughtfully investigated in more depth.

The only time Weisz’s (or any of the supporting actors’) strong performance fell short was at times where the script read as needlessly verbose. Understandably, a period piece will never see its characters slip into a colloquial tongue, but at times, the script did itself a disservice by sacrificing clarity for flowery language. Consequently, characters were rendered somewhat unbelievable in places where their dialogue felt far too forced.

My Cousin Rachel ought to have been longer. This is a film petrified of operating at a speed that serves the characters and plot, instead pandering to audiences inclination for rapid fire gratification, which has resulted in a story ill-served in the editing suite. To begin with, one is dragged along by Philip to Italy in a short-lived but nevertheless serious search for Rachel so as to deliver to her a vicious comeuppance, only to then be subjected to a tiring love story between the two, which is illustrated by a seemingly never-ending barrage of shot reverse shots. Sure enough, this is how the story goes in the original novel, but it is not the plot trajectory that was problematic, rather, it was the handling of the narrative by means of pacing that let ‘My Cousin Rachel’ down.

Michell seemingly cannot choose what film he is making, and whilst it is not unheard of, nor wholly futile, to hybridise genre, Michell fails to set a consistent tone that can be appreciated by the spectator. Several revelations that complicate the story deserve audience reflection, but are rather thrown aside and made redundant in a desperate search of ‘excitement’ over intrigue. As a result of this consistent redundancy, the mystery of Rachel’s intention is not particularly enthralling, and had one left the cinema before the film’s natural end it would come as no surprise that one may feel no regret in not knowing the conclusion of the film. In fact, the conclusion is hardly a sufficient pay-off from 106 minutes endured.

My Cousin Rachel is an enigmatic mystery, a turbulent romance, and an entertaining—albeit slow-burning—thriller. It would, however, be unfair to say that this successfully achieves a satisfying coalescence. More appropriately, My Cousin Rachel is a patchwork film, one of great potential that deserved a confident authorial hand.

Max Redmond Smith

By Max Redmond Smith

Max Redmond Smith is a scholar and freelance writer based in London. A graduate of Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London, Max is interested in carnal cinema, sonic studies, porn studies, and sexual dissidence.