Oh man, this is way better than I was expecting. Like I thought it’s be some second tier gothic period thriller from a lesser known Daphne du Maurier title but heck, this one actually got some go to it. It opens on a Cornwall cliffside, this peculiar gash in the land, ominous and threatening. A few scenes on, when a wind rushes into a room, a woman goes to close the window and disappears momentarily in the drapes. And so we set up our lead’s peculiar aversion to all femininity.
I wasn’t expecting the joint to have some of the most confrontational cinematography I’ve seen so far this year either but dear God what cinematographer Mike Eley and director Roger Michell do with the camera is just something else. Like, maybe it’s the period setting, but my mind keeps going back to The Handmaiden. The camera constantly inventive and probing, the staging provocative, capturing these real uncomfortable compositions. For every shot that’s a bit obvious, say a foregrounded hammer wielding hand, there’s one like this gorgeous long shot as Rachel moves about the background lighting all the candles stalking the seated man centre frame. At the same time he’s trying to stoke an unlit fireplace, so good, so good.
The man is Philip, as played by Sam Claflin who’s finally found a role that fits him. There’s always seemed to me something a little stilted about his performances, when he’s forced into being the romantic lead it just don’t work for me. It always feel like his characters got something else going on under the surface which undermines them when they gotta be genuine. Here, in the realms of twisty psyho-thriller, it works, even when he being nice you get the sense that there something rum about this cat.
Philip grew up in the care of his uncle Ambrose, it’s noted time and again specifically ‘without a mother,’ as though this could be some sort of revelatory explanation instead of some petty excuse. As he’s coming of age his uncle falls ill and retires to Florence to take the sun. There he meets his cousin Rachel who he sorta falls for (these were the olden times, it was allowed), but the letters he returns home get steadily more nervous and paranoid until his death. When she arrives at the family’s estate to mourn, Philip takes it on himself to investigate.
There’s so many bad possible versions of this, mostly without Rachel Weisz’s central performance as Rachel. She plays it right down the line here. If the question posed is murderous gaslighter or grief-stricken, abuse victim widow, she nails both, consistently. There ain’t a slip, she doesn’t overplay her hand, she’s never changing the character she plays, but lets the breadth of the performance encompass everything the plot requires of her, after seeing her earlier this year in Denial where her role was literally to button up and sit down, it’s so good to see her able to cut loose and go full on out for this one.
Y’all can sorta tell they all having fun because the plot is such a gas. There’s a slight stiffness now to some of du Maurier’s more Victorian melodramatic plot contrivances, the constant allusions to the crumbling cliffs down at the coast feel positively baroque. Is this hinting at something possibly? I do wonder where the climax will be set. That’s all forgivable though because despite the artifice on the surface we got a properly timeless story going on here.
It’s anothor shitty dude story. Claflin’s Philip is so oblivious and dumb and idiotic it’s a surprise that he’s even able to dress himself properly (big ups by the way to Dinah Collin on costumes, and all the rest of the design team, this one sexy lookin film). I’ve not yet mentioned his childhood friend Louise, Holliday Grainger in a kind of thankless role, but she gets in enough wry and gently condescending smiles to make it worth her time. Philip just relies on her to do all the thinking for him, and when he stops it’s to design one of the most elaborate self-hoistings anyone’s ever devised.
Watching his dude slow motion car crash his entire life is only horrifying when your sympathies are with the dude. I believe the novel is written in first person so you’re trapped within the confines of the narrator’s gaze. Michell opens it up somewhat, sure we’re mostly stuck with Philip and the transparency of his motivations comes across pretty clear, but we also glimpse occasionally into Rachel’s life and Louise’s and get a sense of them outside the roles that our dude has decided they must inhabit. With this more detached perspective the film is free to view Phil’s garbage foolishness at least with interest, which is so much more satisfying in the context of a film.
It’s almost feminist fiction in a way. And Rachel’s personal brand of menace comes across as that fun witchy kind of someone who don’t really conform to society’s standards but enjoys herself anyway. Maybe that’s a failing, maybe I wasn’t so entranced by the slowly unfolding mystery as I was just loving seeing Weisz do this shit so good. Who cares though, I was down, and she more than good enough to pull me through the entire running time. If this were set in the 21st century, my boy Phil would totally be an MRA. I just like watching him get dunked on so good.
My Cousin Rachel is currently screening in UK cinemas