Having a version of Chris Isaac’s’ Wicked Game’ on the trailer soundtrack proved a masterstroke. the latest screen version of My Cousin Rachel is a beautifully shot and tortured tale of love, misconception, manipulation and unwise infatuation
A WOMAN’S TOUCH BRINGS COLOUR AND CONFUSION
CUTTING DOWN a huge fir tree and dragging it home by horse from the wintertime woods of the Cornish family estate is a solitary endeavour for its 24 year old heir, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, puppyish). It is as if he is attempting to prove the manhood he won’t officially achieve until his next birthday on 1st April, especially to his Cousin Rachel (a contessaesque Rachel Weisz) even though she will see none of the preparation for the estate’s Christmas party. ‘It’s to be a surprise,’ he instructs his earthy headman who, in turn shouts – with liberal use of swear words – at the younger labourers now fixing the tree in posiiton in the barn and decorating the interior. There’s to be a hefty meal, copious drinking and jaunty dancing for everyone, this night reminiscent of Far From The Madding Crowd (1967), and as in previous years when Philip’s late cousin and foster parent, Ambrose ran the house.
Except life has changed drastically since Philip’s beloved Cousin Ambrose was last there and kept the mansion like a farmhand might, complete with feet up on the dust-covered family furniture, and perfumed with the damp fur of hounds. In poor health and advised to visit Florence, the avowedly bachelor landowner there met and married Rachel, yet later fell fatally ill and in fitful, tortured letters home suggested that his new wife was both extravagant in tastes and with his money – and slowly poisoning him. So, when the new widow turns up at the Cornish mansion, Philip is confused by what to make of her, especially as he never expected such beauty and becomes immediately bewitched: his future fortune is at stake. Yet this older woman’s presence colours the previously dark, dank estate’s corners, and the locals love her: she delights in unexpectedly giving each of them a Christmas present at the party.
Tale Wrapped In A Mystery Inside An Enigma
No wonder Alfred Hitchcock chose to immortalise on screen Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca (1940, and his first American feature) and The Birds (1963) (from Du Maurier’s 1952 short story collection, ‘The Apple Tree’). His film output shared ‘My Cousin Rachel’s thrilling and sinister ambiguity. We are never altogether sure what is going on. As a fellow English person, it is as if, in the novelist’s stories the film director recognised the macabre sense of place and myth that underscores their small country’s culture, and took that persepctive with him to Hollywood. He and du MAurier seem made for each other. Hitchcock never got to make ‘My Cousin Rachel’ yet this 2017 version has his stamp all over it (The 1952 adaptation is now most notable for Richard Burton’s US screen-acting debut as Philip.)
Roger Michell, director of this latest version has an apparently eclectic filmography richocheting between such films as Notting Hill (1999), Changing Lanes (2002), Enduring Love (2004), and The Mother (2003) among others, though what stands out is their focus on the humanity of the often conflicted characters. So, while he must contend with the strictness of the story being told from the youthful niaive Philip’s experience, Michell who also adpated the book, creates a fine balance not only between the two main characters but also between what we know and cannot know about the enigmatic Rachel. Any misgivings about sheltered Philip’s limited perspective are shaded by the exquisite beauty of Mike Eley’s cinematography and the Caravaggioan-style lighting of almost every scene. The heady tension between Rachel and Philip is ably levelled by Iain Glen as the young man’s cautious godfather and Holliday Granger as his daughter, Louise, Philip’s closest friend.
Sexual Mores Of A Future Past
Every film and novel, whenever they are set cannot help but be of their time. Michell’s My Cousin Rachel is no different. At times, our contemporary mindset is too heavily emphasised (Granger, notably, has a very medern face) when it might have been better suggested. Only momentarily do we sense how trapped the assertive Rachel must have felt by both her English husband and now her younger distant cousin’s mindset and added callowness. (Being a potential ‘cougar’ is seen to be not all it is cut out to be.) From our 21st Century perspective, we recognise Rachel’s shameless sexual liberation which sometimes makes it difficult to understand Philip’s innocence of another era, The violence that disturbingly blasts from him however reveals what his masculinity ‘allows’ him.
The colourful warmth and joy of the estate’s Christmas celebration turns out to be a momentary break of happiness and togetherness, even as Philip’s gift of his mother’s pearl necklace to Rachel before they arrive at the decked out barn will cast its own shadow against her white swan neck. It was not yet Philip’s to give. The festive sheen here is cosmetic and temporary. It is what lies beneath appearances that sends shivers.