Year of release: 2017 Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, and Pierfrancesco Favino.
Compare and contrast the following sentences. “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” “Did she; or didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” One of them is the opening to a masterpiece of 20th century literature, which brilliantly sets the stage for a world balanced between beauty and menace with an aura of perpetual ambiguity, wracked by guilt, inner torment, and memories. The other is the opening line of a film adapted from the Wikipedia summary of the same novel.
I will say right now, that on a technical level, this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is not a bad film. A couple clumsy edits aside, the cinematography is (mostly) gorgeous, the production design is exquisite, the acting is competent, and the directing passable. None of that makes up for the utter ruination of the novel, which as full disclosure, is one of my three favorite books.
The problems begin with the vapid opening line, which heavy-handedly suggests the conclusion of the story rather than introducing us to Philip (Sam Claflin) and giving us a background to make him sympathetic even as he makes reckless decisions throughout the course of the story. That background, which takes nearly eighty pages in the novel, is bull dozed through in about ten minutes as a prologue before the title card. That pacing barely relents for the remainder of the film.
We see throughout the film that Philip is a rash imprudent man, but since the film races through the story with equal recklessness, we never learn why. Thus we never understand the full tragedy or motivation behind his often conflicting actions.
We learn Philip was orphaned as a young boy, and his wealthy older cousin Ambrose took him in, despite the church ladies insisting a young boy needs to grow up around a woman, which is a hurried way of acknowledging Philip’s sexism and difficulty in relating to women. We do not see any of Philip’s fond or troubled memories with Ambrose that we do in the book, and the film completely omits the crucial detail that Philip worshiped Ambrose, embodying both his virtues and his faults.
The film then rushes to its next plot point to check off: Ambrose fell ill and went to Italy to recover. There, despite his self-affirmed perpetual bachelorhood, he fell in love with Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and married her. Then, Ambrose wrote one more letter to England in which he implored Philip to save him from Rachel who was poisoning him. Philip set out for Italy immediately, consumed with hatred for his murderous witch of a cousin, only to learn Ambrose had died of a brain tumor that made him paranoid and irrational.
Shortly afterwards Rachel comes to England to meet Philip, and when he sees her, his resentment instantly melts. In the scene where they first meet, Weisz embodies du Maurier’s title character so perfectly, that for a brief moment, I was almost swept away along with Philip and tempted to forgive the film its faults, but then it went and butchered her most crucial scenes by rushing through them, which undermined the gravity of Philip’s former antagonism.
The biggest problem with this film is that it seems to think that fidelity to the novel merely consists of hitting all the major plot points. With that it fundamentally misunderstands Daphne du Maurier. No one reads a du Maurier novel primarily for its plot. The biggest weakness of her breakthrough novel Jamaica Inn is the thin and kind of predictable plot. Nonetheless, that novel was successful because of its foreboding atmosphere, generating sympathy for its conflicted protagonist thrown into unethical situations against her will, and because of the way it powerfully painted the Cornish countryside as simultaneously dangerous and liberating. Foreboding atmosphere, morally compromised yet sympathetic protagonists, and a love for the Cornish countryside by the sea are the three things that made du Maurier the great writer she was. This film is interested in none of them.
It needs to be mentioned that Philip’s relationship with Louise (Holliday Grainger), the daughter of his godfather and estate manager Mr. Kendall (Iain Glen), and her unreturned affection for him is also glazed over, which makes her presence at later climactic scenes irrelevant. More damningly, it makes the film’s coda, which is not in the book, appalling not only for the way it downplays the horror of the story, but also for its sexist treatment of Louise and exoneration of Philip.
The greatest strength of du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel is the perpetual ambiguity that hangs over the story. Did Rachel murder Ambrose, or did he have a brain tumor? Is she just careless with money, or is she hiding dark secrets for which she needs money? And finally, is she plotting to murder Philip, or not? The film takes very clear sides, so clear that the attempt to turn the tables is completely unbelievable. In stark contrast, the book builds its atmosphere of horror and tragedy by constantly allowing the reader to second guess himself. That sort of subtlety is as foreign to the film as Rachel’s mysterious Italian friend Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) is to England.
The last half hour of my screening was permeated with snickering from the audience. I could hardly blame them; the plot points which made sense in the novel, considering the guilt and uncertainty plaguing Philip, seemed ludicrous here with the film’s one sided approach to the central conflict. If there ever was an example of how to ruin a piece of source material while adhering to its major plot points, this would be it.
There will be worse movies I see this year; there have already been worse movies released. There will be none that I hate more than My Cousin Rachel.
Personal Recommendation: D-
Content advisory: Two non-graphic sexual encounters, an anachronistic obscenity, and a mild aura of menace. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.