My Cousin Rachel | Fox Searchlight Pictures (PG-13)

This particular adaptation badly misses the mark.

The Cornish coast has never looked better on screen than it does in Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, and stars Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin have never looked better either. Mike Eley’s cinematography sparkles, Dinah Collin’s costumes are splendid, several distinguished English country homes are on full display, and if there were an Oscar for lighting design, this film would win hands down. With so much going for it, it’s a shame that dramatically speaking My Cousin Rachel is a damp squib: a melodrama without the drama, a romance with no spark, and a thriller whose every twist and turn is obvious to any viewer who has managed to stay awake.

The story concerns Philip (Sam Claflin), an orphan who is raised in a mansion on the Cornish coast by an adult (male) cousin. Some years later, while living abroad, the cousin unexpectedly marries. Then health takes a turn for the worse, and he suspects his wife is poisoning him. He evens sends a letter to a now-grown Philip stating this directly, but Philip arrives too late to save him. The wife turns out to be the “cousin Rachel” (Rachel Weisz) of the title, a dark-haired beauty who might as well be wearing a sign saying “Evil woman! Keep back 200 feet!” Common sense be damned: of course Philip falls for her, and does a lot of foolish things as a result, because this film is an old-school melodrama. Clearly the director is hoping that you will be so taken in by the many shots of galloping horses and sumptuous architecture that you won’t notice how silly the plot is, but even so huge a fan of heritage television as myself had to throw in the towel on this one.  

My Cousin Rachel recalls the Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s, which were hugely popular with British audiences (one of them, aptly titled The Wicked Lady, is among the ten highest-grossing British films of all time, after correction for inflation) .  In these films, characters are preposterously good or bad, sumptuous lifestyles are on full display, evil doings are constantly afoot, and everything is resolved handily before the credits roll. Crucially, those melodramas succeeded because they engaged their audience, something My Cousin Rachel never manages to do. Claflin and Weizs have zero chemistry together, so Philip’s logic-defying behavior can’t be excused by mad infatuation—instead, he’s carrying the idiot ball because that’s what the plot requires him to do. People sometimes put down melodramas by saying they are emotionally manipulative (even if they’re fine with such manipulation if the film is about sports or war), but My Cousin Rachel shows what happens when you follow the melodrama rulebook but omit those tugs on the heartstrings—you get a really boring film that pleases no one.  

Michell’s screenplay for My Cousin Rachel is based on a 1924 novel of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier. Not having read the novel, I can’t say how faithful this film is to it, but I can say that Du Maurier’s fiction has been far more successfully adapted for the screen in the past, most notably as the Alfred Hitchcock films Rebecca (1940) and  The Birds (1963). What’s more, My Cousin Rachel has previously been adapted at least twice, as a 1952 film that garnered four Oscar nominations, and as a television mini-series in 1983. So it’s not the case that Du Maurier’s work is unsuited to cinematic treatment, but only that this particular adaptation badly misses the mark.  | Sarah Boslaugh

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