Sunday 19 January 2020

Handsome du Maurier adaptation gloriously ambiguous

Sam Claflin as Philip and Iain Glen as Kendal in My Cousin Rachel.
Sam Claflin as Philip and Iain Glen as Kendal in My Cousin Rachel.


Suspicion is a poison that can take effect without warning, turning the most level-headed men into irrational fools.

Daphne du Maurier explored this human frailty to delicious effect in her 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel, which was adapted into a big-screen battle of the sexes the following year starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton.

More than 60 years later, director Roger Michell revives the gloriously ambiguous thriller, abetted by a powerhouse performance from Rachel Weisz as the titular (anti) heroine, who may have murdered her trusting husband with handmade herbal tea.

Reputation certainly precedes Rachel, and Michell's screenplay spends the best part of 30 minutes teasing her as a scheming seductress before she makes her entrance.

Weisz never tips the wink either way and one of the film's lip-smacking delights is trying to glimpse evidence of guilt - if it exists - behind the facade of the grieving widow.

The erotic charge in scenes with co-star Sam Claflin is palpable and there are some lovely exchanges like when they take tea together and butter oozes from one of his sandwiches.

'You'd better lick your fingers,' she smiles.

Orphan Philip (Claflin) is raised by his older cousin Ambrose on a sprawling estate nestled handsomely on the Cornish coast.

It's a pastoral idyll dominated by men - 'The only women allowed in the house were the dogs,' observes Philip in voiceover - apart from infrequent visits from pretty neighbour Louise (Holliday Grainger), daughter of Philip's godfather, Kendall (Iain Glen).

When Ambrose falls gravely ill, the doctor recommends a trip abroad to recuperate in the balmier climes of Florence.

Philip is promoted to man of the house in Ambrose's enforced absence.

Out of the blue, the new master receives a troubling letter from Ambrose, which reveals that he has married a woman called Rachel (Weisz), who has become his 'torment'.

Further letters suggest that Rachel is poisoning him - 'She has done for me at last' - and when Ambrose passes away, Philip vows revenge.

Soon after, Rachel arrives at the estate and Philip resolves to prove her guilt and unmask a swarthy male companion (Pierfrancesco Favino) as her lover.

However, Rachel isn't the scheming harpy Philip imagined and he gradually succumbs to her radiant beauty.

Filmed on location in Cornwall, My Cousin Rachel is a handsome adaptation of du Maurier's text that retains an air of tantalising mystery till the final frame.

Claflin is no match for Weisz on screen, making it all the more believable that his painfully naive whelp would stumble into her web, if she is indeed the spider to his fly.

Director Michell shoots several key scenes by candlelight, concealing emotions in the flickers of a flame that leave us in the dark, desperate for answers, as much as poor Philip.

RATING: 7/10

Wexford People

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