British writer-director Roger Mitchell (The Mother, Notting Hill, Enduring Love) offers an enticing blend of suspicion, suspense and infatuation in his compelling adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel, which was last brought to the big screen a year after its publication.
Orphan Philip (Sam Claflin) has been brought up by Ambrose, his beloved guardian and relative at his Cornish country estate, Penhale. But when Ambrose dies in Italy in mysterious circumstances shortly after marrying his distant cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), Philip is convinced that she is to blame for his loss. Yet his desire for revenge becomes complicated when, from the moment he meets the enigmatic, beautiful Rachel, he finds himself bewitched by her.
Set in 19th century, this dark tale of obsessive love is thrillingly tense not least because of the considerable build up to their initial encounter at the estate. Philip observes Rachel from afar, sneaking about candlelit rooms until he comes face to face with her. She appears demure and nervous - her fingertips twitching and trembling around a china teacup. But before long, Rachel has breathed life and femininity into the neglected manor house and Philip has fallen in love.
But is Rachel playing him for a youthful, naïve fool? Is she a murderous temptress intent on inheriting his fortune and estate or an innocent, grieving widow? Like some of the herbal and medicinal concoctions that she mixes, Weisz gives an intoxicating performance as the ambiguous protagonist. Dressed in black gowns and occasionally veiled, Rachel’s widow’s costume appears to emphasise her beauty and mystique. She exudes sophistication, charm and sensuality, beguiling the immature, inexperienced and petulant Philip, credibly played by Claflin. But from the first time they kiss, there is a strange Freudian feel to the relationship when Rachel uses a decisively maternal tone telling him, “Now go to bed like a good boy.”
A strong supporting cast comes from family friend (Iain Glen) who warns Philip that his infatuation could lose him everything. When Louise (Holliday Grainger), his wise and dependable daughter, also expresses her concerns, Philip chides her that she knows nothing about Rachel. “Or is it you who know nothing?” she responds tersely - a comment directed as much to the audience as it is to him.
Cinematographer, Mike Eley, captures the buccolic splendour of the Cornish scenery and its dramatic coastline, which is in sharp contrast with Penhale’s shadowy, gothic interiors. Despite its disappointing resolution, this finely crafted period drama twists and tests throughout. In a voiceover at the outset, Philip asks, “Did she or didn’t she?” Mitchell keeps us wondering, right until the very end.
My Cousin Rachel is released on 9 June