* ½ (out of 4)
If you haven’t actually seen Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, you could easily be tricked into believing that it faithfully carries forth the Hitchcockian tradition of suspense. The story, after all, is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, the English author of the books that inspired Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds. Rachel’s various trailers take pains to amplify the “mysterious” nature of the plot – which, for reference, follows a man named Philip (Sam Claflin) as he gets to know a woman (named Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz) who may or may not be responsible for the death of his guardian. Even Michell himself has openly stated that he made Rachel with the intention of creating “the sensation of horror hovering at the edge of the frame.”
With such high expectations buffeting Rachel before you enter the theater, you’re bound to come out at least somewhat dissatisfied. Yet even if you watch Rachel with no knowledge of its background, the movie completely underwhelms. Michell can cite Rebecca and The Birds all he wants, but Rachel shows that he doesn’t really understand why those two movies worked. Only in Rachel’s last 20 minutes or so does the story make any real attempt to cast ambiguity on Rachel’s actions. Otherwise, most of the plot devotes itself to depicting Philip’s dimwitted and stultifying attempts to woo her – and when it finally gets around to suggesting that Rachel is actually a ruthless murderer, it drops insinuations with a clumsiness that would have left Arthur Conan Doyle face-palming. Meanwhile, the cinematography certainly deserves some praise for occasionally deploying shadows with film-noiric poise, but Michell cancels out the impact of all such shots with his insistence on juxtaposing them with breathtaking but out-of-place views of the English countryside.
Beyond its unconvincing central mystery, Rachel also seeks to provide an analysis of 19th-century gender roles. Rachel serves as a picture-perfect example of the effects of repression; she’s someone who wants to “make her way in the world” but finds herself held back by societal mores. Philip, meanwhile, epitomizes immature, controlling masculinity – he’s the kind of guy who insists that Rachel wear his mother’s necklace out of some twisted, caretaker-oriented conception of women. Yet while the movie effectively lays out the contours of the gender relations it seeks to dissect, it doesn’t end up breaking much new ground here. On Rachel’s side, the story is constrained by the fact that it’s told from Philip’s point of view: in light of the many recent movies built around the perspective of a 19th-century woman (Far from the Madding Crowd, A Quiet Passion), Weisz’s talk of obtaining “independence” feels frustratingly superficial. As for Philip, on the other hand, Hitchcock himself provided far more riveting portrayals of men’s peculiar obsessions vis-à-vis women in movies like Vertigo and Psycho.
In all its main endeavors, then, My Cousin Rachel disappoints. Worse, there isn’t much else that can redeem it. The lead actors turn in lackluster performances: Claflin bursts into tantrums with an unnatural abruptness, and Weisz, far from being a femme fatale à la Phyllis Dietrichson, largely fails to move past mopey-widow tropes. Of the other aspects of the film, meanwhile, only Holliday Grainger breaks out of the realm of the forgettable as a young woman rashly friend-zoned by Philip. But while Grainger’s quietly pained expressions hint at emotions and thoughts worth probing, Michell never bothers developing her character. Had he done so, he probably could’ve unearthed a far more powerful statement on 19th-century female repression than the one he actually gives.
In the end, the best way to understand the underlying problem with My Cousin Rachel is to look at the way it deploys music. The score is not only exactly what you’d expect from a “mystery” movie; it also plays over virtually every other scene at a consistently distracting volume. It’s almost as though Michell, out of some underlying awareness of the story’s dullness, seeks to compensate by repeating “This is creepy” ad nauseam. And unfortunately, such a crude and simplistic mindset characterizes just about every forced expression, contrived exchange, and predictable plot point in this waste of 106 minutes – to the point that the movie could readily serve as a poster child for the artistic movement known as “tell, don’t show.” Nobody can doubt Michell’s good intentions. But if My Cousin Rachel ends up being remembered, it’ll be because it’s a perfect example of how trailers often outdo the movie they seek to promote.
My Cousin Rachel (2017)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen
Running Time: 106 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for some sexuality and brief strong language.”
Produced by: Kevin Loader
Written and Directed by: Roger Michell. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel of the same name.