Hello, everyone! The weather is starting to get chillier where I am, which means it’s time to break out the sweaters and of course, the dark romance mysteries. Yesterday I watched My Cousin Rachel, a 2017 film adaptation of the 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel. The film is quiet, but heavy with emotional intensity and the suspense of a subtle mystery. It’s the perfect film to ring in one of the first nights of fall.
Quick Synopsis: Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley was raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose, who is the owner of a large estate and often winters in Italy to cure his recurring illnesses. One winter, he meets one of his cousins, a woman named Rachel, and marries her. A few months later, he is dead, and Rachel comes to visit the Cornwall estate. Although at first Philip is suspicious of Rachel and blames her for Ambrose’s death, he soon becomes enamored with her. As Rachel’s influence grows, questions start to emerge within the household about Rachel’s role in Ambrose’s death and her influence over Philip.
My take: My Cousin Rachel is the type of film whose strengths lie in its clash between its atmosphere and its cinematography. From the beginning, the vibrancy of the Cornish coast and the lushness of the Italian countryside are at odds with the brooding atmosphere of the film. The cinematography is stunning, but composer Rael Jones’ haunting score instills an air of sadness and mystery from the first few scenes.
The time period is contemporary with Jane Austen’s oeuvre, yet the tropes we’ve been taught to expect from such period films, such as innocent romances and humorous class politics, are nowhere to be found in this film. Instead, we have relationships predicated on and unravelled by unmet expectations. Sam Claflin’s Philip, virginal and immature at 24, is not the type of Regency period male hero we’re used to seeing. And Rachel, played by the stunning Rachel Weisz, is no plucky heroine, but instead a mature middle-aged woman whose self-confidence and inner mystery make her something of an enigma.
While middle-aged women are commonly portrayed in 19th century literature as sexless mother-figures or badgering harridans, Rachel is different. Her beauty, sexuality, and charm are at center stage in the film, and it’s easy to see why Philip would become enamored with her. Romances between young men and middle-aged women are rare even in modern films, and practically unheard of in the 19th century, which makes the romance in this film seem anachronistically modern. Yet it’s the consequence of this romance, rooted in 19th century mores, that keep the film grounded and realistic.
Who is Rachel? Everything from her wardrobe to her actions are cloaked in contradictions. While her black wardrobe and veils show her to be the perfect picture of a chaste, grieving wife, her relationship with Philip shows her to be inwardly romantic and sexual. She is said to be reckless with money and brazen with her public affairs, yet she returns the jewels Philip bequeaths upon her, and remains faithful to him. Her complexities defy the stereotype of a 19th century British woman, and the fact that it’s easier for Philip to imagine that she is an evil, depraved murderess than accept that she is merely an intelligent independent woman with her own wants and desires, put the gender politics of the time on full display.
In many ways, My Cousin Rachel is a film about entitlement and expectations. Philip feels entitled to Rachel from the moment he meets her. He never questions whether his puppy love for her is reciprocated, never thinks about whether she is happy in Cornwall, or whether she would want to trade her freedom as a widow for a married life full of restrictions. The fact that the film is told from his perspective, and not Rachel’s, has a lot to do with making the viewers feel as confident about her love for him as he does. So when Rachel does pull away from him, it seems unexpected, and like a sign of her inner evil. We start to believe that maybe she had a hand in Ambrose’s death, and maybe she only strung Philip along to steal his inheritance. It’s only when we take a step back from this narrative and leave Philip’s head that we start to see Rachel for who she really is: a woman with contemporary ideas of female personal freedom trapped in an intolerant time period.
So who is Cousin Rachel? That’s not a question the film is interested in solving. Rather, the movie wants to show us all the ways that a woman’s so-called transgressions could turn society against her. Murderess, manipulator, man-eater – these are all words that gave Philip an easy way of vilifying Rachel and excusing his abusive actions towards her. As his love for her turns to frightening jealousy, and his acts of romance become tinged with physical abuse, he transforms as completely as she does. We are left with two very different characters than the ones we started with.
My Cousin Rachel is like an appetizer of a film. It leaves you unsatisfied and wanting more. The film’s two main mysteries are never solved and justice is never served. But perhaps we need more films like this, films that pose difficult questions and don’t intend to answer them. As we watch Rachel smiling beneath her ethereal black veil, we can see the truth looking back at us, and we know that we can never reach it. For some, this may not be enough. But for me, I would rather watch a film that forces me to think over one that presumes to give me all of the answers.