By Kim Hughes
A welcome respite from the usual summertime popcorn fare and a winning mystery in its own right, My Cousin Rachel may be the ultimate chick flick, with equal parts romance and eye-rolling. What makes the movie so engaging is that the audience never quite knows who it’s cheering for. Turns out being off-balance is pretty darn exhilarating.
The storyline is at once simple and not so simple. Orphaned young Philip (Sam Claflin) has been taken in by his super-cool and very rich older cousin Ambrose, who makes life sweet and fun. Alas, Ambrose suffers from poor health of the distinctly 19th century variety and winters in Italy to escape England’s harsh climes.
Some years later during one such getaway, Ambrose reveals to Philip that he is to marry an English/Italian woman, Rachel, he has met abroad. But the tone of his correspondence soon darkens, with Ambrose alluding to more profound illness and possibly nefarious goings-on involving his bride. Then he dies.
Torn by grief, and certain Rachel was involved in Ambrose’s death, Philip plots to bring her to England to uncover the truth and seek his revenge. But when a charming Rachel (Rachel Weisz) turns up – notably without claim to Ambrose’s vast estate – Philip is smitten and thrown off-balance. What gain would murder have brought Rachel? And why does she look so foxy in that black veil?
Working from a 1951 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, writer/director Roger Michell (see 1999’s sterling Notting Hill and Morning Glory from 2010) eases clever comedy into the film’s overarching drama, playing both ends against the middle.
As Philip morphs from revenge-hungry stud to knock-kneed suitor, Rachel’s aversion becomes palpable. What woman wants a six-foot puppy, even if it is a strapping Claflin bearing knockout jewellery? Simultaneously, what’s with the weird tea that Rachel – dazzlingly captured by Weisz – keeps brewing up? And why the mysterious Italian friends?
And romance aside, is a clever and independent woman just too much for these men with their institutionalized misogyny to handle? We don’t know, and that uncertainty keeps us glued even as other players – Philip’s previously trusted advisors and counsel – strain to tip the action towards apparent reason.
Michell’s film is a thoughtful, powerful champ. It may not grab the headlines of other seasonal titles, but it’s a contender just the same.
My Cousin Rachel. Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger and Iain Glen. Opens wide June 9.
An entertainment/lifestyle writer and editor of an exquisite vintage, Kim has written about film, music, books, food, wine, cosmetics and cars for the Toronto Star, NOW Magazine, Report on Business, Amazon.com, hmv, Salon, Elevate, CBC, Spafax and many other marquee properties. She lives in Toronto and is a proud volunteer with Annex Cat Rescue.