“Did she? Didn’t she? Who is to blame?” asks pensive Philip (Sam Claflin), in the prologue of My Cousin Rachel, the latest feature by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), through which this sense of amorphous uncertainty shall resonate to the end. Each time Philip thinks he knows, something or somebody pulls the scenario out of shape. Here, after all, is a film of luscious inscrutability that entices us to probe conscience and ambition.
Philip, an orphan, was raised like a son by his wealthy cousin Ambrose in a large faming estate in 19th-century England, where women were considered dispensable. So, when he receives news his guardian is going to marry their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) in Florence, Philip is ambivalent. Subsequent letters from Ambrose telling of ill-health and torment only intensify his misgivings. And, arriving too late in Italy, in response to a hastily-scribbled message “Come quick!”, the hot-headed 24-year-old vows to exact revenge on the “woman that caused” Ambrose’s death.
Only, that woman turns out to be witty and poised, and Philip is surprised to find himself falling under her beguiling spell. The revelation Rachel is not a beneficiary at all in Ambrose’s will appears also to eradicate any sinister motivations.
Despite the seemingly innocent cinematography (Mike Eley) throughout — there is hardly any sex or cleavage, and save for the face not much bare skin either, for what is a dark and mysterious romantic drama — the movie does involve a great deal of allusions to raw passion. Gifting Rachel an elaborate pearl necklace that belonged to his mother, Philip petulantly says he wants her to wear it every night, which when combined with the older woman’s “Now go to bed like a good boy!” after kissing him on the mouth, carries every stirring of Oepidus complex.
Meanwhile, Rael Jones weaves his richly sensuous sounds (lush woodwinds and rousing piano and strings) through sweeping coastal vistas and tragedy, between alleged poison and voluptuous costumes, as chunks of juicy, red meat are torn inside panelled rooms, and secrets written on scraps of paper are tossed into open fires.
In short order, Philip upon coming of age endows the object of his affection with all that Ambrose had bequeathed to him, defying warnings of “unbridled extravagance” and “limitless appetite”, defying too his own observations of Rachel’s intimacy with “a very old friend”. Even when suspicions are later strengthened, the realisation that all the jewellery he bestowed on her she has returned once again undermines any deduction he — indeed, we — can draw.
Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier My Cousin Rachel is an impressionist portrait of love and perception and money. But, as indeterminate as when one examines an artwork up close it is, above all, a study of truth and of the human heart.