By Richard von Busack
Made scaly by the filigree of the lace of her long black veil, Rachel Weisz stars in a role so right for her that it’s seemingly named in her honor: Director Roger Michell’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel. She’s no letdown to the actresses who previously assayed the role, Olivia de Havilland (1952) and Geraldine Chaplin (1983). Weisz’s Rachel is a seductive older woman, who perhaps learned the old craft of poisoning from her time in Florence.
In the middle of the 19th century, handsome Philip (Sam Claflin, Finnick in The Hunger Games) was raised by his cousin Ambrose on their sheep ranch on the Cornish coast. Ambrose has poor health and takes his winters in Italy—there, he encounters another cousin, Rachel, raised in that land. Ambrose marries her, and shortly expires … but not before sending letters in splattered ink. Ambrose claims that he’s been murdered by Rachel. When Philip goes to Italy to find out more about Ambrose’s demise, he learns that the supposed cause of death was a brain tumor.
Soon Rachel arrives in England to view her husband’s land, though Ambrose never changed his will in her favor. At 25, Philip will own the manor … but he’s taken by the comely widow, and charmed by her sophistication.
Avoiding “Masterpiece Theatre” syndrome, Roger Michell (Venus, Notting Hill) uses a handheld camera and quick editing; he also makes the farmlife notably coarse.
It’s an idea to take material this moonlit and foggy into the realm of the realistic. But Claflin, playing the most foolish property owner since King Lear, can’t convince us of his blinding passion. My Cousin Rachel withholds an extremely important bit of information until the last minute. And the denouement isn’t set up in a way that can be believed. It’s rushed, it’s abject.