A dark romance, My Cousin Rachel tells the story of a young Englishman who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms. It is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, who has inspired a wealth of good films: Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now to name but three. In fact, this film reminds us of those films through the ambiguous feelings it evokes.
It takes at least 15 minutes for Rachel Weisz, who plays Rachel, to appear on screen, but when she does it is a quiet, contained event. Nonetheless, the effect of her face is a payoff akin to an explosion in an action movie. Weisz’s face is very slightly asymmetrical, and she can control the cadence of her voice in a way that introduces the character of Rachel as instantly magnetic. She’s festooned in widow’s weeds throughout the movie, and from inside that black cocoon her face is like one of those floodlights the cops put up in New York at night: blinding, gentle violence.
The mystery animating My Cousin Rachel is about the motivations of its main two characters, and it’s explored through a pas de deux between Sam Claflin, playing Philip, and Weisz. The manor house where no woman has been admitted has a big hole at the center of it, where Philip’s dead mother should have been. His maternal ancestors are only present through a super-symbolic pearl necklace, worn by Philip’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother at their weddings. The orphan has no understanding of women, and so he is powerless to resist Rachel’s searching face.
Roger Michell, the director, has done an interesting and difficult thing by replicating in cinema the sensibility of first-person literary narration. At a level deeper than the operations of gender is a horror about the unknowability of other people and their motivations, even in the most intimate relationship. Du Maurier was a virtuoso of the hidden; her novels are best in the places where information is missing. Rachel Weisz delivers an equally virtuosic turn as a woman barely understood by the very story in which she lives.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall