The title character in My Cousin Rachel, a beguiling, enigmatic widow played by Rachel Weisz, may be a murderer. She may have poisoned her second husband, a distant English relative named Ambrose who traveled to Italy for his health, met Rachel, married her, and then died, never to make it back home. Rachel may be a killer, but somehow, in the eyes of the young man who falls in love with her, her homicidal potential isn’t nearly as dangerous a quality as her independent streak.
My Cousin Rachel, which was directed by Notting Hill’s Roger Michell and is based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel, is meant to be a 19th-century gothic thriller. It's told from the point of view of Philip (Sam Claflin), a 24-year-old orphan who was raised by Ambrose, his cousin, and has since inherited his gorgeous estate on the Cornish coast. Philip becomes convinced Rachel is responsible for his adoptive parent’s death, thanks to a disturbing letter from Ambrose saying as much that was sent right before he died. Philip is intent on confronting Rachel right up until he actually meets her, when he goes from scorning to smitten entertainingly quickly, inviting Rachel to stay while the movie keeps us guessing about what she is or isn’t hiding.
Thanks to some odd choices, what's meant to be a 19th-century gothic thriller instead comes across as a film about what it’s like to be a woman being judged by a man oblivious to all the power he holds. There’s a curious alchemy in the unevenness of its casting, pitting a dexterous Weisz against an outmatched Claflin in a way that foregrounds her character, even though it’s Philip at the film’s center. Claflin is a jarring fit for the part of Philip, a strapping man in the role of callow boy, which only adds to My Cousin Rachel’s sense of dreamlike malleability, as does the fact that Claflin also plays the doomed Ambrose in a few wordless scenes.
Claflin, in other words, plays father to himself. Philip isn’t the product of some sort of aristocratic parthenogenetic process, but he feels like he might as well be, out there in his country-estate-as-boys-club in which “the only women allowed in the house were the dogs.” Early in the film, upon reading a letter from Ambrose about falling for Rachel in Italy, Philip wonders dismissively why his caretaker would have any need for women when he has Philip — a sentiment that doesn’t come across as childish so much as surreally stunted when it comes out of the mouth of a 30-year-old actor.
It’s into this bachelor’s paradise that Rachel arrives, twice married and half Italian, brimming with sophistication and sexual experience even in her mourning black. “The vicar finds you very feminine,” Philip tells her after she makes her debut in the community by way of church and Sunday dinner, an observation that feels like it’s at least as much neg as it is compliment, though you take his point. Rachel’s womanliness is a force unto itself, shaking Philip out of his secure solitude and turning his head with hilarious rapidity. She defuses his initial hostility with a slightly salty joke and an admonition to go to bed, a mixture of flirtatious and maternal that Philip finds irresistible.
Rachel is very feminine, in the sense that she has had to learn to navigate life as a woman in a world dictated by men, to tamp down her feelings for her own protection, to charm and disarm while trying to keep people at an appropriate distance, a distance she miscalculates when it comes to Philip.
Even as his interest grows, Philip wavers between seeing Rachel as killer and victim, manipulative gold digger and genuinely loving spouse. Maybe she’s a saint who suffered through her late husband's paranoia and violent behavior, brought on by a brain tumor; maybe she’s a witch, with the herbal teas she brews and pushes on others, insisting they’re healthy and healing. But the more we see of her, through Philip, the more she just seems like someone who survived abuse and heartbreak, only to be put in precarious financial straits because Ambrose didn’t sign his will, leaving her economic future at the mercy of Philip, a stranger. Weisz allows peeks of Rachel’s frustration and calculation beneath her accommodating smile as she regards Philip with guarded affection, like a puppy who could rip your throat out.
My Cousin Rachel is overheated in ways that are sometimes funny, especially when characters try to warn the heedless Philip off the older woman with euphemisms that stop just short of waggling eyebrows (You understand? he’s asked, more than once). But any gossip about Rachel’s finances and lovers might as well be a weapon wielded against her, since it's up to Philip to decide what to believe and how it affects his behavior toward the houseguest he eventually hopes to wed — neglecting, of course, to ask if Rachel even wants to remarry.
She is a bad Victorian, Rachel, but My Cousin Rachel is unexpectedly good, a portrayal of oblivious patriarchy in the form of a mystery. There’s a sense of simmering rage beneath its fetching surfaces — the ire of a woman who’s been taught that acting in her own self-interest is a subversive act, but who senses freedom so close at hand. The film is guided by the question of whether Rachel is guilty, but ends up posing one about why Philip thinks it’s his place to decide, why he’s so certain of his right to have sway over not just this woman’s character, but her very life.