My Cousin Rachel is a film that aims to recreate the grim themes and mysterious atmosphere of a traditional Gothic story. It opens with Phillip (Sam Claflin), our protagonist, explaining that he was orphaned young so that Ambrose, an older cousin, took him in and raised him in a house of only men. In Phillip’s early twenties, Ambrose takes ill and goes to Italy to convalesce, and there he meets their cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Through their regular correspondence, Phillip learns that Ambrose and Rachel have married and that his cousin’s health has severely declined. When Phillip receives a letter claiming Rachel is the cause of Ambrose’ illness, he goes to Italy and discovers that Ambrose is dead. He returns home to mourn, only to find Rachel on his doorstep a few days later. All of this happens in the first thirty minutes or so of the film; it is only when Rachel arrives that the true story begins.
Phillip blames Rachel for Ambrose’ death and expects to hate her, but somehow, he can’t. She is mysterious and beautiful but above all she is fascinating, totally different from what he imagined a woman could be. Rachel is educated with strong opinions that she does not hesitate to voice, and Phillip finds himself drawn to her. But even as his feelings grow, he can’t let go of his suspicions, watching her every moment and growing more paranoid every day. As the story unfolded I also wondered what was the truth, going back and forth between seeing her character as the innocent and badly used woman and the cold-hearted conspirator who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
Rachel Weisz is the heart of this movie, her enigmatic performance necessary to keep the suspense and prevent the story from becoming flat and boring. She veers close to campy at some points, but as the only source of excitement in the film, such camp a welcome addition. Sam Claflin however, gives a lackluster performance that’s only somewhat forgivable due to the character he plays. Phillip vacillates between reasonable man and angry, irrational jerk without batting an eye. He isn’t bad in the role, merely serviceable, and in this kind of film, where so much rides on the performances, it was not enough.
While My Cousin Rachel is not a horror or a thriller, it doesn’t hesitate to employ a few of those genre’s techniques to create an affecting atmosphere. The lighting is dramatic and ever changing with the mood of the film. There are extreme close-ups, and the occasional scene with an odd, almost hallucinatory feel to it. The sweeping English countryside complete with jagged cliffs and rolling hills provides a haunting setting that fits the overarching tone of the movie. While it’s no wonder the trailers took advantage of this eerie tone, it will be a disappointment to anyone who went in with an expectation it would actually be that kind of horror story.
There was a lot to like about My Cousin Rachel, as the story kept me guessing and it was beautiful to watch. The gorgeous sets, well done costumes, and especially the acting of the background characters create an engaging world that feels very real. All the ingredients for a great movie were there, but it still managed to only partially hit the mark. The plot drags, repeating the same info again and again before finally moving on to a new development. The time between Rachel’s arrival, when the tension begins to ratchet up, and the climactic scene goes well past reasonable and approaches exhausting. Like most gothic stories, My Cousin Rachel will appeal to certain group of viewers, but those outside that realm may find themselves uninterested by what it has to offer.