“did she do it? she does not? Whose Fault Is It?” When 20th Century Fox first brought Daphne du Maurier’s elusive 1951 novel to the screen just a year after its publication, its heated publicity promised that Olivia de Havilland was “the only star in the world.” the world” who could play its titular heroine, a mysterious beauty who left men bewildered wondering: “was she a woman or a witch, a virgin or a murderess?”
Now, Rachel Weisz gives de Havilland a run for her money in a new film version of Du Maurier’s twisted tale. It is written and directed in a pastiche style by Roger Michell, whose diverse resume ranges from romantic comedy Notting Hill to provocative mother to psychodrama Lasting Love. Pitching Weisz’s captivating 19th-century widow against Sam Claflin’s baby-faced man-child Philip Ashley (a role that previously made a star out of Richard Burton), this unabashedly subversive dark romance mixes intrigue with old school with luxuriously modern psychological twists and post-Freudian emotions.
When his wealthy adoptive cousin, Ambrose Ashley, falls under the spell of “radiant and good” Rachel de Weisz while sunbathing in Florence, orphaned Philip suspects a crime. Responding too late to Ambrose’s instructions to “come quickly!”, he rushes to Italy to find his guardian dead and swears revenge on “the woman who caused it.” But back in England, Rachel confounds Philip’s suspicions, not claiming Ambrose’s inheritance, simply charming her young heir with her grace, beauty, and femininity, all revelations to the googly-eyed idiot. Were Ambrose’s hastily scribbled fears of poisonous plots simply hallucinations caused by a fatal brain tumor? Or do tales of Rachel’s “unbridled extravagance” and “unlimited appetite” point to more fatal attractions?
From Rael Jones’s voluptuous score (all woodwinds, melodramatic strings, and tinkling killer piano motifs) to the slow-motion shots of pearls theatrically tumbling down a staircase, Michell’s mature film evokes a self-consciously nostalgic cinematic landscape in which weisz the modern rachel seems like an alien presence, what michell calls “the woman who fell to earth”. With relish Weisz deceives his audience at every turn, vacillating between innocence and cunning nonchalance amid the mounting storm of secret letters, unsigned wills and whispered infidelities. time and time again, mike eley’s camera captures her eyes peering over the rim of a teacup or under a veil, unreadable and enigmatic. There’s a hint of Barbara Steele in Weisz’s electrifying gaze, as if Italian horror master Mario Bava has decided to make an entire gothic romance loosely based on the works of Thomas Hardy.
Claflin is also very well cast, his smug face fitting perfectly with Rachel’s description of “a glorious, miserable, wet-nosed puppy looking for his mother.” the oedipal theme is hardly underestimated; After kissing Philip goodnight, Rachel tells him, “Now go to bed like a good boy.” later, he announces that he wants her to wear her mother’s necklace “every night!” (When Philip’s bare butt is glimpsed, half expect it to be spanked or powdered.)
In supporting roles, Holliday Grainger’s Louise hides her pain as Philip wraps himself around Rachel’s finger; Iain Glen bristles elegantly as Nick Kendall, the godfather’s disapproving voice; Pierfrancesco Favino revels as Rainaldi, Rachel’s conspiratorially charismatic sidekick; And Simon Russell Beale has fun as the most demanding armchair, whose job is to “stay”. There’s also a charming miniature sketch of Tim Barlow as the gruff servant Seecombe who could have been a quick show character in his own right.
What is most impressive, however, is the sustained air of ambiguity, which one suspects du Maurier would have approved of (she is said to have been disappointed in the 1952 film). Like Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, which Hitchcock and Nic Roeg brought so brilliantly to the screen, My Cousin Rachel has a fetishistic sense of spiraling history that lends itself to the weird spirals of lurid cinema. Alice Normington’s engaging production design and Dinah Collin’s costumes add texture to the drama, while hand-held footage and shallow-focus shots inject a note of modernity amid sweeping coastal views and bucolic landscape vistas. . There’s also some Poldarkian scythe, along with eating a lot of meat, fit for a movie that sinks its teeth so gleefully into its source. But it’s Weisz who provides the magic, keeping the mercury rising with a performance full of delightfully unsolved mystery.