As the title of the film suggests, the plot of My Cousin Rachel centers on the character of Rachel Ashley, the recently widowed wife of a man whose cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), suspects her of poisoning him. His estate in Cornwall, England, passes entirely to him on his twenty-fifth birthday, by which time Rachel, played with soldering torch intensity by Rachel Weiss, has endeared herself to him, having come to live in Cornwall after Philip’s cousin dies. Intriguing performances, masterful direction, and evocative cinematography enrich this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel.
Among Du Maurier’s other works adapted for the screen are Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Hungry Hill, Don’t Look Now, and The Birds, all films conveying a powerful current of suspense. My Cousin Rachel begins by introducing the protagonist, and then his cousin’s mysterious wife whom he hears about through a series of increasingly ominous letters from Ambrose, accusing his new bride of murderous intentions. Once Ambrose has departed, the presumed result of a brain tumor, and Rachel settles in at the estate in Cornwall, Philip can’t believe such a spirited, captivating woman could be guilty of so diabolical a crime.
Set in the late seventeenth century, the story was inspired by a portrait Du Maurier saw of a lady named Rachel Carew, and while the mystery unfolds eerily, almost dreamily, it also sustains an air of historical fiction. Philip’s experience of falling for, then later suspecting, and finally, perhaps, despising his cousin’s widow, feels like a true story, vividly recounted by Philip himself with faintly dreadful undertones. He strives for freedom and fulfillment, but his pursuit is obstructed by a cloud of impatience, youthful boldness, and lurking fear.
Award-worthy performances from Weiss and Claflin in the leading roles, as well as fusion zone supporting work from Holliday Grainger as Philip’s longtime friend and would-be fiancée, Iain Glen as his quietly protective godfather, and Pierfrancesco Favino as Rachel’s companion, Rinaldi, exalt this film to the realm of true greatness. The question of whether or not Rachel poisoned her husband, Ambrose, remains unanswered throughout the time of her stay with Philip, leaving him, and the audience, torn between the elegant vitality of her character, and the possibility of a lethal darkness at work behind her eyes.
The question of Philip’s destiny plays a significant role, in his moments with Louise (Grainger), prompting us to wonder if she isn’t the one he should be pursuing. Her love for him is unwavering and evidently more true than the hesitant affection of his cousin Rachel. At the film’s conclusion, we have to ask not only what really happened when no one was looking, but also what might have happened if Philip had looked beyond his more compelling desires to find a more complete truth.