A mys­tery and an enigma

Rachel Weisz be­guiles in ro­man­tic thriller based on Daphne du Mau­rier novel

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - KEN­NETH TURAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.turan@la­times.com

Its ti­tle couldn’t be more in­nocu­ous and gen­teel, but don’t be taken in. An­chored in an ex­cep­tion­ally per­sua­sive per­for­mance by Rachel Weisz, “My Cousin Rachel” is not only a tri­umphant ex­er­cise in dark and de­li­cious ro­man­tic am­bi­gu­ity, the pit­falls of be­ing taken in are what this melo­dra­matic thriller is all about.

First filmed more than 60 years ago with Olivia de Hav­il­land in the ti­tle role and based on a novel set a cen­tury ear­lier, “My Cousin Rachel” has not only re­fused to date, it has ex­tended its rel­e­vance.

In fact, as writ­ten and di­rected with in­tel­li­gence, zest and craft by Roger Michell and mak­ing ex­pert use of Weisz’s im­pec­ca­ble work, “My Cousin Rachel” comes off as re­mark­ably mod­ern, deal­ing with per­sonal is­sues and power dy­nam­ics be­tween men and women that ar­guably echo at least as strongly now as they did back in the day.

This is in sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure due to the nar­ra­tive skill of nov­el­ist Daphne du Mau­rier, in her prime one of the high­est-paid au­thors in the world. Du Mau­rier was ca­pa­ble of com­bin­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­ity and deft plot­ting to such an ex­tent that three of her nov­els (“Ja­maica Inn,” “The Birds” and the clas­sic “Re­becca”) were mem­o­rably filmed by Al­fred Hitch­cock.

With smart sto­ries like “Venus” and “Not­ting Hill” and one of the best Jane Austen adap­ta­tions (1995’s “Per­sua­sion”) to his credit, Michell has al­ways been ex­pert at tran­si­tion­ing lit­er­ate ma­te­rial to the screen.

He’s helped here by a top vis­ual team, in­clud­ing cin­e­matog­ra­pher Mike Eley, pro­duc­tion de­signer Alice Norm­ing­ton, cos­tume de­signer Di­nah Collin and ed­i­tor Kristina Hether­ing­ton. Work­ing in tan­dem, they see to it that each im­age on the screen, whether it be windswept land­scapes, gut­ted can­dles or Rachel’s mid­night-blue rid­ing out­fit against a milk-white steed, is vis­ually thrilling with­out seem­ing fussy or over­thought.

Though her name is on every­one’s lips from the start, the ti­tle char­ac­ter doesn’t ap­pear for a while, which leaves the fo­cus on the film’s nar­ra­tor, who haunt­ingly de­mands in an open­ing voice-over, “Rachel. Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?”

That ques­tioner is Philip Ash­ley (Sam Claflin), who is tasked with fill­ing in the film’s com­plex back story in a brisk pre-cred­its pro­logue that con­tains more plot than many en­tire films.

Or­phaned as a child, Philip is adopted by his cousin Am­brose, who the boy comes to love as a fa­ther. Re­turn­ing from school de­ter­mined to avoid “books, cities, clever talk,” Philip has his tran­quil Corn­wall world up­ended sev­eral times over.

First his beloved Am­brose trav­els to Italy for his health, then Am­brose falls in love with and mar­ries the half-Ital­ian Rachel, “ra­di­ant, good, the kind­est com­pan­ion,” then he be­gins send­ing home darker, more sin­is­ter let­ters hint­ing that Rachel is schem­ing to end his life.

Philip goes to Italy at once, but Am­brose has died by the time he ar­rives, Rachel has dis­ap­peared, and her mys­te­ri­ous Ital­ian friend Rainaldi (Pier­francesco Favino) in­sists the cause of Am­brose’s death was a brain tu­mor that caused parox­ysms of para­noia in the sick man.

Philip swears to wreak vengeance on the ab­sent Rachel and re­turns to the ru­ral es­tate he will soon in­herit, looked af­ter by his wary guardian/god­fa­ther Nick Ken­dall (Iain Glen) and Nick’s good-hu­mored daugh­ter Louise (Hol­l­i­day Grainger), who is clearly in love with the obliv­i­ous young man. All is tran­quil­ity it­self un­til Rachel pays an un­ex­pected visit and the film be­gins in earnest.

The 1952 ver­sion of “Rachel” has the great ben­e­fit of a young Richard Bur­ton in his Hol­ly­wood de­but play­ing Philip. With his pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity and melo­di­ous voice, Bur­ton runs away with the part (he was nom­i­nated for an Os­car) and is a tough act for Claflin to fol­low.

Of­ten seen play­ing an un­heroic hero (he was Gemma Arter­ton’s cranky col­lab­o­ra­tor in “Their Finest”), Claflin gives Philip a dif­fer­ent kind of a read­ing than Bur­ton, but one that is well-suited to the points this “Rachel” is mak­ing.

For, not to put too fine a point on it, Claflin’s Philip is kind of a dolt, an emo­tion­ally dense bear of lit­tle brain who doesn’t un­der­stand a lot of things, women be­ing first among them. The fact that we are see­ing Rachel largely through his eyes makes him an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor of a very par­tic­u­lar sort.

In truth, though, Rachel would be a lot for any­one to get used to. A be­witch­ing, clas­si­cally fem­i­nine beauty who likes to drink herbal in­fu­sions or ti­sanes, she rep­re­sents a style of life Philip has never even imag­ined ex­isted. Not only does he give up all thoughts of vengeance, he is soon be­sot­ted with her him­self.

But be­cause Rachel proves un­pre­dictable, be­cause she her­self is so dif­fer­ent and, in Weisz’s sub­tle, ef­fort­lessly com­plex per­for­mance, so un­know­able, sus­pi­cions about her ac­tions never die.

Grad­u­ally, al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly, the big­ger ques­tion, one that feels very con­tem­po­rary, be­comes whether what Rachel says and does are signs of sin­is­ter be­hav­ior or sim­ply the ac­tions of a woman who wants to be her own per­son, some­one who heart­break­ingly asks, “Why shouldn’t I have a life of my own?”

How “My Cousin Rachel” re­solves this di­a­bol­i­cally am­biva­lent sit­u­a­tion, how it deals with the “Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” ques­tions it be­gan with, is a dilemma fated to haunt us even af­ter the fi­nal cred­its roll.

Ni­cola Dove 20th Cen­tury Fox

PHILIP (SAM CLAFLIN) is an­gry at Rachel (Rachel Weisz), then be­sot­ted by her in Roger Michell’s film.

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