When walking out of the theater into the frigid night air after seeing a screening of Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, it was difficult to tell which was the more chilling — the cold or the film. It is a movie that I still haven’t been able to shake a day later, and for good reason. Michell envelopes his audience in the Gothic romantic world of renowned author Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), challenging perception, blurring reality, and sweeping into the vast and tempestuous landscape of the English coast. Leads Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz are equally powerful forces within the film’s dark tones of intrigue and distrust, performing an engrossing tale of doubt, love, lust, and gender warfare.
In My Cousin Rachel, young bachelor Philip Ashley (Claflin) has recently returned home after his university studies to live in rural peace with his cousin Ambrose, a man who raised him after he was orphaned as a baby and who also uncannily matches Philip’s resemblance. When Ambrose takes ill and moves to Italy to spend his days in the sun, he soon meets their previously unknown cousin Rachel (Weisz), falls quickly in love, and marries her. Philip is immediately distrustful of the hasty union and flees to Italy once he receives an upsetting letter from Ambrose, who seems to be close to death’s door. Discovering that Ambrose has died and believing that Rachel is to blame, Philip plots revenge against her, but soon finds himself falling deeply and disturbingly under the spell of her feminine wiles.
Michell’s film is a number of things, — romance, mystery, spooky gothic drama — but above all, it is a master class in the dismantling of the male gaze. Du Maurier’s story and Michell’s adaptation gradually unfold a tale that is devilishly and endlessly smart. The story’s perspective is masculinity in a fishbowl, told from a man raised exclusively by men and virtually unknown to women until he meets Rachel. The film employs nearly every female character stereotype known to film and literature throughout history; Rachel is beautiful, intelligent, flirtatious, and refined, reeling in the attentions of every man she comes into contact with from the promise of her perfect femininity. Once that perfection is shaken, though, male doubt turns to demonization and destructive labeling. Early on, Rachel tells Philip that he knows nothing of women, and as Philip continues to fall into a romantic trance, he at one point jokingly calls her a witch, harkening to one of history’s most controversial instances of female repression.
For all intents and purposes, Michell fools the audience along with Philip, destabilizing Rachel’s initial virtues through seeds of doubt and mistrust. Weisz plays both sides expertly, capturing the sympathies of the grieving and gracious widow, while maintaining an air of mischief in the corner of her gaze. Rachel’s intentions are a near constant enigma, and together with Michell, Weisz delivers an enthralling mystery to bolster and cement the gender commentary. Likewise, Claflin turns in the performance of his career thus far while portraying both Philip and Ambrose. He intricately balances the ignorance of youth and the pomp of unchecked masculinity, bringing the audience to his side and alienating them from one moment to the next. Neither Philip nor Rachel are innocent and the playful back and forth between Claflin and Weisz is as absorbing as the narrative intrigue.
To top it off, the film is downright gorgeous. Its visuals epitomize the splendor of 19th century Cornwall England — its tonally depressing weather, its rocky shores, and the large estates conspicuously populated, or haunted, by the country’s bourgeois legacies. The careful attention paid to darkness and light roots the film in its classic inspirations while fashioning a mood befitting the secrecy and uncertainty of its characters. Cinematographer Mike Eley frames each shot to willfully divert the audience’s gaze and further question perception while costume designer Dinah Collin and production designer Alice Normington beautifully deliver the film’s visually captivating fanciful elements. Every level of production is on par with Michell’s adaptation, resulting in a hypnotic delivery of its narrative.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
My Cousin Rachel is an infinitely clever twist on the dangers of the male gaze. By essentially leaving it up to the audience to decode Philip’s perspective and solve the mystery that is Rachel Ashley, we are equally complicit in its application, making the story’s result all the more enticing. Michell’s film is mesmerizing, and does complete visual justice to the rich gothic world of du Maurier’s writing. Weisz’s performance is cunningly layered, and Claflin runs the gamut on emotional range, making for a twistedly entertaining moviegoing experience.