A couple of years ago, my Aunt Suzie bought me a copy of the book My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier she had found at a flea market, mostly because it had the name Rachel in the title (Rachel happens to be my name). It was a happy accident that Daphne du Maurier is the author of one of my favorite books, the superb romantic thriller Rebecca. I read My Cousin Rachel later that summer during a trip and enjoyed it, and read another of du Maurier’s books, Jamaica Inn, the following year. Of the three books by Daphne du Maurier that I have read, Rebecca is my favorite, My Cousin Rachel comes in second, and Jamaica Inn makes up the rear. Despite an interesting premise, an unlikeable heroine and a plot twist that is either amazing or shark-jumping depending on your tastes make Jamaica Inn less enjoyable than I was expecting. I was excited to hear about a film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel coming to theaters this summer and when it started getting good reviews, I was anxious to see it.
The orphaned Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has been raised by his cousin Ambrose, the quintessential english confirmed bachelor, to see women as disruptive interlopers. When ill health brings Ambrose to Italy, Philip is shocked to learn that his woman distaining cousin has suddenly gotten married to the mysterious and enchanting Rachel (Rachel Weisz). After a series of startling letters and Ambrose’s sudden death of a brain tumor, Philip begins to suspect Rachel of foul play. But when he finally meets the woman herself, Philip falls under her spell. Desire turns to suspicion and paranoia when more details about Rachel’s past come to light and Philip begins to fall ill in the same way that Ambrose had.
My Cousin Rachel is a master class in ambiguity. Each reveal in the plot poses more questions than they answer, leading to a fascinating story. The main conflict, Rachel’s guilt or innocence, allows the reader or viewer to come up with a large number of possibilities. Did Rachel poison Ambrose using her special tisane to get as his fortune and is doing the same to Philip, or did Ambrose become unhinged due his brain tumor. Rachel could have simply been giving Ambrose medicine to ease his suffering and if she did poison him, maybe it was to spare him from a longer and more painful death. The film leans towards the Rachel was giving him medicine or trying to put him out of his misery theory. At a number of points in the story, Rachel mentions to Philip that his increasingly hostile treatment of her is almost identical to Ambrose’s behavior prior to his death. The ending gives the impression that Philip has the symptoms of a brain tumor, similar to the one Ambrose died from.
Rachel Weisz was a brilliant choice to play the dramatic and elegant Rachel, and contrasts well with the earthy, tomboyish Louise (Holliday Grainger), Philip’s other love interest. I think Holliday Grainger is better suited to wholesome girl-next-door roles rather than devious femme fatale parts, so she was a good fit for Louise. A nitpick I had was that in one scene, Louise describes the shabby state of Philip’s manor house as smelling like “every dog in the county has taken a shit here.” I have a hard time believing that Louise would have used a word as crude as “shit” but I gave it a bit of leeway because she was shown as being somewhat tomboyish and treated as “one of the boys” by Philip. I am definitely “Team Louise” because I tend to sympathize more with the less favored romantic option who stands little chance against their more dazzling rival, so I was pleased by the addition at the end where after Rachel’s accidental death, Philip marries Louise and has a family with her.
One problem I had with the film was that it was a little confused as to which time period it was set. The costumes worn by Rachel and Louise were in the fashion of the 1840s while the rest of the women shown on screen were dressed for the 1830s. Other than that, I loved the clothing worn by the two female leads, Rachel’s striking blacks, reds, and blues and Louise’s more natural browns and pastel florals. The film is visually beautiful with its shots of the stunning Cornish landscape and shadowy, candlelit manor houses.
I would recommend My Cousin Rachel, both the film and book, to those who love a good mystery and periods costume dramas with an edge.