Stories that follow a ‘did they’’/‘didn’t they’ or a ‘will they’/‘won’t they’ structure have always fascinated me. There is something so intoxicating about the idea of discovering the true intentions of a character as the film unfolds; no tricks, no gimmicks, just good, old fashioned guessing through thoughtful storytelling – it usually leads to an exhilarating and satisfying end-point because such care has been poured into the story during its runtime. The most sophisticated and successful examples keep you guessing until the final moments, providing answers while leaving the audience soaking in at least some ambiguity. My Cousin Rachel is so ambiguous though that rather than arousing and exhilarating, it utterly bores you instead.
I’ll throw my hands up and say that may be a tad harsh, because My Cousin Rachel does hold impressive pieces to puzzle, but this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel mainly disappoints, particularly when considering the intriguing premise on its hands. Philip (Sam Claflin) believes that the death of his older cousin was at the hands of his wife, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and is determined to discover the truth behind his passing. Bubbling under My Cousin Rachel’s surface exists interesting themes relating to power, paranoia and femininity as a weapon – but the execution of the story undermines the subtle thematic content, rendering an almost pointless and wholly underwhelming experience.
While you can just about handle the narrative back and forth – one that elicits a captivating and intense atmosphere that looms over the piece – the film’s inability to decide, and the continued bait and switch, between its character loyalties is simply too much to handle. Frequently, the film juggles with whether Rachel is the antagonist or protagonist, at the same time as toying with whether Philip is an protagonist or antagonist; everything is up in the air, all of the time, and it becomes exhausting. So, exhausting I (hand on heart) fell asleep in the middle of the screening. Not once, but twice. I fell asleep twice. I’m so embarrassed.
Execution is the major flaw…
Melodrama trumps any genuine drama and emotion created by the premise itself, uncomfortably bombarding the audience with this tiring tug of war between right and wrong, true and false, good and evil. It is a slow and sensationally over-exaggerated exercise supposedly in the name of drama, basically squandering any of the careful atmospheric advancements or the solid job undertaken by our two leads. Simply, Rachel’s execution is the major flaw of this dissatisfying final product, matched with the fact that, despite clocking in at 106 minutes, it feels closer to three hours than two.
Weisz and Claflin are two of Britain’s most undervalued and under-appreciated actors and they prove here that they have the ability and skill to engage you (for the most part), even when the narrative cannot. Weisz, in particular, provides a complex performance as the titular ‘torment’, illustrating an ability to crack Rachel’s facade just enough that she somehow becomes even more intriguing each time you find out something new about her. Just by teasing and revealing subtle shades to her being, she embellishes the impenetrable Rachel and enshrouds her in further mystery.
Claflin, rather willingly, allows Weisz’s Rachel to be the star of the show, pushing the spotlight on to the torment rather than the tormented. He works to enhance the secrecy that surrounds her with a captivating and fraught performance, impressing as he did earlier this year with Their Finest. In many ways, Philip is the audience’s surrogate, attempting to uncover the enigma that is Rachel at the same time as the audience; he keeps us on edge and impresses, with the pair often strengthening their co-stars performance by understanding when to stand back and give the other their moment(s) to shine.
Neither Weisz or Claflin are given the appreciation they deserve in the film circle, and while this is not the smoothest vehicle to encourage or convince people otherwise, they are certainly the standout element of the entire piece.
Visuals, symbols and candles galore…
Roger Michell takes the directorial reigns and does a fair job at bringing the beautiful scenery and landscapes to the big screen, managing to seamlessly infuse some gothic symbolism into the frames and lifting the film up aesthetically. Candles, in all their dangerous, flammable glory, considering their close proximity to drapes and costumes and veils, help cultivate an uncomfortable, atmospheric tone accentuated by Mike Eley’s swooping and slightly hazy cinematography. A terrific natural source of lighting, the flickering, flaring shadows they project not only suit the era and tend to the tone but act as a symbol for Philip and Rachel’s turbulent and inflammatory relationship. It’s really quite masterful.
Even when the story gives up, the visuals, mostly plain and simple but definitely lovely, are giving us at least something to appreciate.
Laboured and dull, the only time the pace quickens is during the grand climax’s wrap-up, rapidly transitioning from an excruciatingly slow slog to a rushed effort in order to sign off. While the ending delivered some of the film’s most striking gravity and weight, it cannot help but appear too little, too late. I definitely appreciated the lingering ambiguity installed in the ending, and it has had me considering and theorising for days – but that largely comes down to the story and premise (and conviction from the lead performances), rather than the film itself. Again, it all comes down to the film’s lame execution and it’s difficult to assign blame for that.
Questions, potential and time wasted…
But I can, and I will attempt to, and it lies at the door of the script writer. Michell, tackling the screenplay as well as the direction, does a fine job adapting poetic and rather flowery language perfectly fashioned to the era – but he fails to invigorate the structure. He desperately tries to scrape that central idea out but struggles to sharply incorporate the fascinating themes into the fold, thus failing to give us something else to consider. Essentially, he wastes away the abundant, absorbing thematic content and the copious questions it could pose to audiences…
Why does Rachel not confront Philip about his increasingly obvious accusations, claims and fears? Does Rachel truly reciprocate Philip’s feelings or is it simply to allay his condemnation of her? Were Ambrose’s letters genuine or overblown by Philip’s overactive, possibly deluded, mind? Or was it simply loneliness and a resentfulness towards Rachel, who fundamentally removed the surrogate father from his life, that encouraged him to pursue and victimise her? So many questions, so much potential and all the time in the world to answer them – but it simply decides not to bother and it’s a mighty shame.
You may be surprised to learn that the number of positives actually outweigh the number of negatives when it comes to My Cousin Rachel – but the shattering boredom inflicted on us through the overdrawn, plodding narrative tips the scale in the wrong direction. Its volatility in positioning characters as either good or bad, right or wrong, ultimately distracts from what stood to be an engaging, hypnotic display of gothic-mystery at its very best. Instead, My Cousin Rachel flounders its execution and leaves its talented cast and naturally engaging story to do all of the heavy-lifting – and it’s hit and miss as to whether it succeeds.
The film will no doubt worm its way into people’s subconscious and impress others more welcoming of its (very) slow-burn structure – but despite its positives, I cannot overlooks the fatal flaws that is its execution and pacing. Like the candles that populate the piece, My Cousin Rachel – potential, premise and talent considered – gets very close to going up in a blaze of glory; but it is ultimately suffocated by a lack of oxygen that desperately struggles to ignite the spark that made the source material so promising and successful on page. It’s a real tug of war between what does and doesn’t work and, unfortunately, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t win.
What did you make of My Cousin Rachel? Was Rachel responsible for Ambrose’s death or fatally misunderstood? Drop me your thoughts in the comments below!
My Cousin Rachel is out in cinemas now across the UK and US. For all release dates, see here.