By Jake Watt
5th June 2017

Author Daphne du Maurier was often categorised as a "romantic novelist", a term she hated, given her novels rarely had a happy ending, and often had sinister overtones and hints of the paranormal. Published in 1951, ‘My Cousin Rachel’ instantly became one of her most popular novels. Like the earlier ‘Rebecca’, it is a mystery-romance, set primarily on a large estate in Cornwall, where du Maurier spent much of her life.

The first film adaptation of ‘My Cousin Rachel’, starring Richard Burton in his debut Hollywood role and Olivia de Havilland, was released in 1952, yet the definitive du Maurier adaptation has always been Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ (with de Havilland’s sister and longtime rival Joan Fontaine in the lead role). This latest adaptation, with a screenplay written and directed by Roger Michell (‘Notting Hill’, ‘Enduring Love’), delves even deeper into the novel’s brooding atmosphere and exploration of the nature of good and evil.


A dark British period romance set in the 19th century, it tells the story of a callow country nerd (Sam Claflin, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’, ‘The Riot Club’) who, after receiving some strange, accusatory letters, plots revenge against his mysterious and beautiful cousin, Rachel (Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz, ‘Youth’, ‘The Constant Gardener’), believing she murdered his beloved guardian, Ambrose (played again by Claflin in a brief scene). His feelings become complicated when this half-Italian vixen turns up on his doorstep in Cornwall, penniless, and he finds himself falling helplessly and obsessively in love with her despite the quiet objections of his godfather (Iain Glen, ‘Game of Thrones’, 'Eye In The Sky'), the family lawyer (Simon Russell Beale, ‘Penny Dreadful’) and his lifelong friend Louise (Holliday Grainger, 'Cinderella', 'The Borgias').

There is a serpentine, twisting psychological mystery to be enjoyed here - this film is all about pleasing homages to old-fashioned storytelling and ambiguity.

This is handsomely filmed and richly atmospheric picture. The Cornish coast is beautifully shot by cinematographer Mike Eley, as are the more gothic candlelit settings. Rael Jones’ score moves effortless between eerie and the old-fashioned romantic.

There is a serpentine, twisting psychological mystery to be enjoyed here - this film is all about pleasing homages to old-fashioned storytelling and ambiguity. Weisz’s portrayal of her namesake perfectly captures this aspect of the anti-heroine character, as well as her beauty, exoticism, and mesmerising personality. She is also bold and independent, demanding of Philip: “Can you not let me be a woman in my own right?” This leads the audience to wonder whether Rachel is actually a murderous black widow or simply a woman whose modernity is creeping all these British stiff upper lips out. Claflin, playing a self-sabotaging, obstinate “glorious puppy” who reliably refuses any offer of help, combines a charming boyishness with a more dangerous anger. Tim Barlow is a highlight as grumpy old servant Seecombe, as is Holliday Grainger as the likeable, cherubic Louise.

An obituarist wrote of du Maurier: “(She) was mistress of calculated irresolution. She did not want to put her readers' minds at rest. She wanted her riddles to persist. She wanted the novels to continue to haunt us beyond their endings.” The new adaptation of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ opens by asking the audience: “Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” And these questions continue to persistently torment the viewer long after this dark, sensually elegant film has ended.

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