As far as film adaptations of Daphne du Maurier go this is no Rebecca, but at the very least this solid-enough period drama is a fine vehicle for the talents of Rachel Weisz.
The story is told by Philip (Sam Claflin), an orphan who is adopted by his wealthy cousin Ambrose and grows up at his impossibly picturesque estate in Cornwall. While sunning himself in Italy for reasons of health, Ambrose unexpectedly marries a British-Italian woman named Rachel (Weisz), news that doesn’t exactly please Philip. When he receives a sinister letter from his cousin with veiled accusations towards Rachel, Philip rushes to Italy to discover that his guardian is dead. Though Philip finds himself Ambrose’s sole heir and Rachel doesn’t get a penny, he’s convinced of foul play and swears vengeance on the woman who caused his cousin’s death.
However, when Rachel pays Philip a visit back in England, he is unprepared for her beauty, grace, charm and the lack of any claim over her dead husband’s estate. Having grown up in an all-male household, Philip is completely smitten by the sophisticated, boldly modern older woman (his sweet would-be companion Louise (Holliday Grainger) naturally cannot compete). But is Rachel genuine in her apparent goodness and selflessness, or is she a scheming black widow with a taste for luxury, playing a diabolical long game? Was Ambrose’s fearful letter the product of the fatal brain tumour that killed him, or was he murdered? And what’s up with the herbal brew that Rachel keeps feeding Philip?
Apart from the gorgeous scenery (all those lush never-ending fields of green!) and rich production design, he film is mostly worth watching for Rachel Weisz’ deliciously ambiguous, finely balanced performance. Rachel seems oh so genuine, captivating all around her with unaffected charm, or pleading innocence with a wounded look in her eyes. But then at other times the camera catches her smiling a slight enigmatic smile under her black veil, or peering over her cup with an inscrutable look, and the dark suspicions come back. I’ve always regarded Weisz as a fine actress who nevertheless was missing some elusive X-factor, but she is impossible to look away from here.
The rest of the film doesn’t quite match Weisz’ excellence; the story has a jumbled feeling at times and the whole thing is not as juicy as du Maurier’s twisty gothic tale would suggest. For all the not-so-subtle Oedipal allusions, the film is too buttoned-up and sexless for its own good. As the main hero, Philip threatens to fritter away the viewer’s sympathy by making a series of dumb reckless decisions, but a lack of likeability is not necessarily a problem. He is however such an insipid wet puppy you wish there was someone else more interesting in his place, or at least someone who could generate more heat and chemistry in the scenes with Weisz. My Cousin Rachel has many things going for it, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity.