Michell’s gothic romance strives to be seductive, but ends up frustrated…
If there was ever a director not suited to tackle My Cousin Rachel, it’s Roger Michell. His dumbfounding filmography – one rich with muddled projects, and awkward genre transitions – speaks for itself; a filmmaker desperate to craft a project within every possible narrative framework, even if the quality suffers accordingly. Now this is not the first time Daphne du Maurier’s acclaimed 1951 novella has been translated to celluloid; in fact, just a single year later, a Richard Burton-starring vehicle arrived, but Michell’s version is here to inject modernism into the classic text. Or so he hoped, anyway.
Problems arise very early, whilst remedies are in short supply. Working from his own screenplay, Michell shoots Sam Claflin as dashing hero Phillip Ashley – an orphan who was raised by his beloved cousin, Ambrose. We open with an extremely heavy-handed monologue, projected in voiceover, as he details the fatherhood supplied by his dear relative, and how together they grew stronger and happier, even during times of great turmoil. Tragedy soon strikes however when Phillip learns of Ambrose’s death.
This comes in the wake of a receiving a cryptic letter brimming with paranoia, leading to the idea that mysterious bride, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), murdered him. There is no evidence of this, of course; purely speculative, but Phillip knows Ambrose. He takes it upon himself to avenge his great cousin by returning every ounce of pain and suffering supplied to his cruel widow, but here’s the kicker; he soon becomes utterly infatuated with her.
Normally one to help elevate a project, it becomes quickly evident that Claflin just isn’t strong enough to carry the entire burden. His Phillip borders on – and sometimes succumbs to – pure pantomime; embarrassingly warbling through scenes, over-stretching the performance so vastly that any hint of subtly is totally diminished. Because that’s My Cousin Rachel‘s most unforgivable ill: a sheer lack of nuance. Supposedly a gothic mystery romance, air thick with psychosexual atmosphere, there isn’t even a zest of understatement in its seduction.
Michell directs so intently within the 12A perimeters that even it’s most pivotal subtext – forbidden sexual desire and arousal – can’t even be properly explored. Instead, we get the most cringe-inducing exchange in which our entangled (and kinda incestuous…) twosome fornicate amidst the bluebells. Even worse however, is when Michell attempts to convey passion and possession without the hanky-panky. Audiences are treated to sequences of biblical cliché, like an ominous roar of thunder, or a slo-mo shot of illustrious pearls delicately tumbling down a flight of stairs.
There are some areas of merit, namely aesthetic choices by the art departments. This is handsomely dressed film; one with bespoke set and costume design, heightened by the ambient lighting as candles flicker, and the hazy Somerset sun exposes dust. Mike Eley’s cinematography is plush throughout, too. Gorgeous establishing shots of the coastline, or the rolling hills in which horses gallop, make for a ravishing contrast to the haunting environments our characters dwell within. The score – orchestrated by Rael Jones – is decoratively arranged, but much like Michell’s script and frame, lacks sensitivity. Often the music invades moments of drama, overpowering their progression.
Weisz delivers interesting work as our femme fatale Rachel, but never is their any notion that she is creatively challenged, nor stimulated, by the role. There’s little doubt she controls the moment, yet the knowledge that this complex and provocative persona could have been much deeper explored is frustrating to say the least. And as for Claflin, well, let’s just say he needs a little more practice. Holliday Grainger and Iain Glenn also star, and are predictably under-utilised.
Michell’s latest starts off rocky, and fails to find stability as we press onwards. There are glimmers of something thought-provoking to find, but it isn’t long before they vanish like a breath through flame.
My Cousin Rachel is out now in UK cinemas.