“Did she? Didn’t she?” This question reverberates through Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 Gothic romance novel My Cousin Rachel, and now through the latest film adaptation, which unspools along a knife edge of doubt. Is the eponymous relative, played by Rachel Weisz, a murderer, or is she more sinned against than sinner?
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), from whose unreliable point of view the story is told, believes the former. You see, his beloved guardian Ambrose dies soon after sending a letter claiming that his wife Rachel has “done for me” – hearing that he was struck down by a brain tumour does not persuade Philip otherwise, and he vows to avenge Ambrose.
When Rachel visits him at his home in Cornwall, however, she isn’t the monster he’s been imagining. Confused by her beauty, charm, sadness, and vulnerability – and drawn to her, in part, by their shared love for Ambrose – Philip invites her to stay, hoping to root out the truth. Youthfully impetuous and callow, he inevitably starts to fall in love with the older woman.
The influence of Freud runs through du Maurier’s novel, and there is a queasy Oedipal element to their relationship in the film. Rachel is shocked by how much Philip looks like Ambrose, and wonders whether the dead man’s clothes will fit him. He dresses her up in his deceased mother’s pearls, his attraction to her apparently both maternal and romantic.
Rachel runs hot and cold, and when she appears to accept Philip's gift of his inheritance (even forensically checking the terms of the contract by which it's passed to her), she looks like the gold digger of rumour. But is she? She may have poisoned Ambrose, or she may not. She may have led a promiscuous life in Italy, or she may not. She may be trying to kill Philip... Nothing about her is clear. Nor can it be, as the woman as presented to us is largely a projection of Philip's fragile mental state (he is, in all respects, Ambrose's double).
Weisz’s performance is subtle and clever, vacillating between warmth and sinister coolness, solicitousness and imperiousness, possible poisoner and healer. She’s so rigorously faithful to the novel’s ambiguity that Rachel remains an unsolved enigma to the bitter end.
Despite this, director Roger Michell’s film doesn’t grip as tightly as it should. Michell’s restrained approach simmers rather than boils, while Claflin’s Philip is so infuriatingly naive that he’s hard to root for.
Ultimately My Cousin Rachel works better as an intellectual exercise when it should be a hot-blooded tale of tragic obsession, guilt and desire.