Cinematic Releases: My Cousin Rachel (2017) - Reviewed

The first big screen adaptation of English author Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel came in the form of the 20th Century Fox produced 1952 Henry Koster film with Olivia de Havilland as the titular and mysterious Rachel.  A loose and complicated romantic period drama, My Cousin Rachel told the story of Philip Ashley (originally played by Richard Burton) living on the rural coast of Cornwall, England who grows suspicious his cousin Rachel may or may not have murdered her husband and vows vengeance.  Upon meeting Rachel, he discovers she is a different person than the one he’s built up his hatred for and the two fall into a mercurial and often tenuous romance with the ever-paranoid Philip still suspicious of her ‘ulterior motives’. 

In league with Far from the Madding Crowd with loose connections to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, the film was met with critical and box office success.  Before and after the film’s release however, du Maurier and the film’s first director George Cukor lamented the deviations undertaken by producer and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson before Cukor was replaced by Koster with some critics asserting the titular Rachel lost her ambiguity and mystique in translation to the big screen.  In the wake of the critical success of their recently released remake of Far from the Madding Crowd, 20th Century Fox has now revisited the once troubled production that alienated it’s author and original director in an effort to do du Maruier’s tale of paranoid and suspicious romance justice while catering to renewed interest in the author’s work.

Directed this time around by Notting Hill director Roger Michell with Rachel Weisz in the titular role, this new My Cousin Rachel ultimately proves to be the more faithful take on the material of the two adaptations.  Offering up it’s own unique blend of costumed drama splendor, scenic beauty and restoring the unresolved mystery surrounding the main character, the new film is a solid remake (or reinterpretation rather) with fine acting across the board and elegant costume design set within the aristocratic world of old England while channeling a few modernist angles on the material.  Not all of it fits with the era being depicted, coming off a bit anachronistic at times, but the performances and intrigue taking place in the arena of elegant table manners where the slight difference in one’s glance or gaze can’t help but give her cousin Philip (Sam Claflin now) mixed signals.

As a longtime fan of the British costumed period drama, it’s gratifying to see studios still making these kinds of character driven films in a marketplace oversaturated with tentpole blockbuster vehicles.  Being a modestly sized independent production, My Cousin Rachel is a sumptuous watch faithful to the source but at the same time wasn’t as involving or morally complex as the material should have been.  While leaving out the deviations undertaken by the 1952 film, not all of the clinchers and climaxes leaving readers with a lot to wrestle with register with the same dramatic power here. 

A bit of a shame My Cousin Rachel as a film proved engaging and intriguing but a tad underwhelming that it didn’t drop the gavel on the viewer in quite the way du Maurier’s most definitely should have.  That said, Rachel Weisz imbues the character with confidence, charm and seduction while leaving ample room for both Philip and the audience to question what lies behind her cool gaze.  As a longtime filmgoer watching the creative powers in the film industry slowly shift towards the television machine, that these kind of stories are still being told and exhibited in theaters is a blessing and healthy antidote to the increasingly limited options presented to the ticket buyer.  Not a masterpiece or anywhere near the level of dramatic weight the source contained therein but a solid, modestly sized night at the movies all the same.


- Andrew Kotwicki