'My Cousin Rachel' Spins A 19th-Century Melodrama About A Mysterious Young Widow

Jun 9, 2017
Originally published on June 11, 2017 8:13 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The English author Daphne Du Maurier is most famous for her 1938 novel "Rebecca," which was turned into an Oscar-winning film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Another novel of hers that became a film was "My Cousin Rachel," first in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, and now with Rachel Weisz as the title character, a widow who might have designs on a fortune. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel "My Cousin Rachel" is very sly. The book is narrated by a callow 24-year-old Englishman named Philip who comes to believe that his wealthy guardian and cousin Ambrose was murdered by Ambrose's new wife, who also happens to be a cousin, a very distant cousin named Rachel. Philip hasn't met Rachel, but he knows she's a monster. Then he does meet her. She comes to the estate he's about to inherit. And he's almost instantly smitten. Cousin Rachel is vivacious, attentive and amusing. She also makes a peculiar medicinal tea, and every time he drinks it he gets unaccountably weak.

This is either the most obvious black widow plot imaginable or something else is going on. Of course, I can't tell you. But it's worth pointing out that although the narrator is a man, the author of the book is a woman. So we're seeing a woman's take on a man's take of a possible femme fatale.

In Roger Michell's movie, Sam Claflin plays Philip is so unstable that you might find yourself cringing. Philip lost his mother at an early age and is both wildly needy and spoiled, but Claflin maybe overdoes it. His Philip also can't think on his feet. When Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz, arrives, he goes to her room for a confrontation. Instead he finds a modest, seemingly ingenuous soul, and he's totally lost. He sits in a chair, puffing on his pipe while a dog stretches itself nearby and listens as she speaks of the estate she has never seen before.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY COUSIN RACHEL")

RACHEL WEISZ: (As Rachel Ashley) Perhaps tomorrow I could borrow a horse and have a look around. Such an odd feeling. Driving up to the house, he comes standing by the door to welcome me. I've done it so many times in my imagination. The clock struck the hour as we drove up and I even seemed to recognize the sound of the bell.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK CHIMING)

WEISZ: (As Rachel Ashley) You're tired.

SAM CLAFLIN: (As Philip) I'm not tired.

WEISZ: (As Rachel Ashley) You're half asleep.

CLAFLIN: (As Philip) No, I'm not tired. I'm really not. I...

WEISZ: (As Rachel Ashley) Will you please stop being so polite and get up and go to bed?

CLAFLIN: (As Philip) Of course. Of course. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I - sorry, I...

WEISZ: (As Rachel Ashley) Good night.

EDELSTEIN: That's a fascinating scene for all kinds of reasons. Rachel seems to know this place so well. Has she been coveting it? She also behaves somewhat maternally towards Philip, as if at once she sensed his vulnerabilities. But when he stumbles to the door and leans into her, she pushes him out as if he's gotten too close. Is she playing a game with him? "My Cousin Rachel" is clearly slanted against its title character. She's half-Italian, and her past in Europe is mysterious. She has an Italian friend, Rinaldi, played by the mischievously enigmatic Pierfrancesco Favino. They're often seen murmuring to each other.

But Rachel Weisz is one of the least artificial actresses alive, and there's nothing in her manner to suggest duplicity. Rachel is independent. She does have secrets. But as the narrative builds towards its melodramatic climax, I found myself staring at her and thinking, she can't be as evil as the movie is suggesting - can she?

The film feels a little intellectualized. It's cool, almost clinical. But the riddle at its center keeps you in suspense. "My Cousin Rachel" is finally a hybrid. It uses clunky devices out of 19th century melodrama to modern ends to show mistakes of perception. Whether the woman of the title is good or evil, the man is dangerously myopic. That leads to tragedy of a far greater magnitude.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Mark Bowden, author of the best-seller "Black Hawk Down," has a new book about the single bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War. The 26-day struggle for the city of Hue, taken in the 1968 Tet Offensive, was marked by intense urban combat, civilian massacres and an end to many Americans' optimism about the country's involvement in Southeast Asia. Hope you can join us.

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(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY CONNICK JR.'S "VOCATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.