So, picture this… There I was in the cinema on Sunday evening waiting to see My Cousin Rachel, a movie that has received a number of excellent reviews, and I was — completely alone! Halfway through the ‘coming attractions’, another woman around my age came in with her daughter, and that was the full extent of the audience! Even more surprising is that this movie only came out on Friday, so this was opening weekend.
What chance, though, does a Victorian drama have against the summer blockbusters? The weekend box office result for My Cousin Rachel was only $970,000, as compared to some of the big draws: Wonder Woman ($58.5 million), The Mummy ($31.7 million), Captain Underpants ($12.1 million), and Pirates of the Caribbean ($10.7 million). (Figures from Box Office Mojo.) It made me wonder why Fox Searchlight Pictures would release a dark atmospheric period drama at the beginning of the summer. The slow pace of the movie is perhaps not what many modern audiences want, with much of the impact being in the silence between dialogue, rather than in the dialogue itself.
However, that being said, I really loved this movie and was transported fully to another time and place. Filmed in Cornwall, the outdoor scenes are beautiful, with a vast green and rugged landscape. This is contrasted with the dark and brooding indoor scenes, showing somber clothing and heavy furniture lit only by candlelight. Combined with a well-crafted musical score, this makes for a very mysterious effect. The voice-over begins the movie with, ““Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?”, setting up the story’s central ambiguity. (Some spoilers follow, but most can be found in the trailers.)
We spend the first part of the movie getting to know the world of Philip Ashley, played by the handsome Sam Claflin, who has been raised by his much-loved cousin Ambrose in a household purposely devoid of women. Ambrose has been away for the good of his health and has met and married their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), much to the shock of Philip. Through letters shared with his godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and Kendall’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) who has a bit of a thing for Philip, he learns that all is not well and travels to Italy, only to learn of Ambrose’s death and Rachel’s sudden departure. Angry and distraught and sure that the woman Ambrose married must be to blame for his hero’s death, Philip returns home to become master of the estate.
Cousin Rachel’s eventual arrival at the estate does not go as Philip would like, with him being wrong-footed from the beginning. Philip is a callow youth, inexperienced in the ways of women, and Rachel is an older beautiful woman. Claflin flawlessly plays the young man overtaken by his infatuation for his cousin’s widow and yet struggling with mistrust. The story progresses, told from Philip’s point of view, so that the viewer is also struggling to try to understand what is really going on. Is Rachel a gold-digging murderess? Or is she truly a grieving widow, misunderstood by Philip? Only Rachel knows for sure. In fact, in an interview with ComingSoon.net, Rachel Weisz said, “I decided as to whether she was guilty or innocent, and the director actually requested that I keep it to myself…”, so that even director/scriptwriter Roger Michell would not know and could continue to weave the air of mystery, which was done so well.
The camera work has us peering through doorways and between the leaves of trees, making us feel like we are right there with the characters. Weisz is controlled and elegant and yet portrays a range of emotions, as we constantly search her face for her motivation. The story is of the period, showing us the imbalance of power between men and women and in fact between youth and experience. I left the theatre still thinking over the characters and the story and wanting more. I will definitely watch it again when it comes to DVD.
I had never read the 1951 Daphne du Maurier book. And I also had not seen the Olivia de Havilland/Richard Burton film released the following year. I looked at the 1952 trailer, but I thought that the much faster pace of the dialogue would probably mess with my mood from the 2017 movie, so it’s not something I’ll try to watch now. However, I did buy the ebook and am really enjoying it. In the book, of course, there is so much more scope for depth of character and background information. If you do buy the ebook (iTunes, Kobo, Amazon, etc), just take note that the best deal is an omnibus edition that includes another du Maurier book, Rebecca.