A maelstrom of accusation and arousal swirls around the enigmatic Rachel, but is she a coldly calculating poisoner or a misunderstood victim who now wants only to make her own way in the world?
This is a film of wonderful performances and a did she/didn’t she story that had me on the edge of my seat, along with their rather cavalier attitude to candles when in the presence of muslin drapes and white cotton nighties.
Philip has been left an orphan as a young boy, and is taken in by his wealthy cousin Ambrose. The two of them are inseparable, and Philip grows to adulthood in an all-male household and estate. The only females allowed within the four walls are the dogs (“Your cousin never had much need for women” says Philip’s godfather Kendall and Philip replies “Why should he? He had me”).
Kendall lives nearby with his pretty and forthright daughter Louise, who it is expected Philip will one day marry (Louise is interesting – underwritten, but very possibly deliberately so, and I’m still wondering about her).
But Ambrose falls ill and is advised to travel to Italy for the sunshine. “How I missed him” says Philip, eagerly awaiting Ambrose’s letters home. These are initially excited as he falls in love with and marries Rachel, a distant cousin he has met, but soon his missives become more worrying, rambling and talking of headaches and poisoning and fear of his own wife. He summons Philip to Italy, but by the time the young man arrives Ambrose is dead, apparently from a brain tumour. Returning home to the estate in England, Philip soon receives news that Rachel is coming to stay.
A beautiful woman, twice widowed, who no one has met and is in line for a fortune, arouses suspicion; until such thoughts are turned on their head when Ambrose’s Will confirms she is to inherit nothing. Philip meanwhile remains Ambrose’s heir and will get the lot on his upcoming 25th birthday.
Philip is not a pleasant young man. Priggish and self-righteous, he has fully absorbed his cousin’s misogyny and before he meets Rachel is rather too desperate to discover that the woman who, by fair means or foul, took his beloved guardian away from him is ugly and fat from too much macaroni.
Rachel is nothing of the sort. Beautiful and clever, on their first meeting she nevertheless has to rely on feminine wordplay, using her wit and conversational skills to persuade him out of his original bad mood (“you lot” he says of women during their conversation). He’s like a child, and she the gently coaxing if rather amused mother, and this is a theme that continues throughout the movie, though he doesn’t see it like that.
Having been so anti-Rachel, once Philip falls he falls quickly and deeply, like a dissolute taking up a healthy lifestyle with more obsession and virtue-signalling than someone who has lived a lifetime on avocados and wheat-free bread.
And once he has decided he actually likes Rachel after all, he assumes his life is now complete. Rachel represents all women to him, and is the missing jigsaw piece in his life. But actually his misogyny has simply become of a more acceptable kind. He still makes no effort to understand Rachel’s motivations or desires and when she wants to work and make her way in the world, he is unable to accept it, preferring to pay her to do nothing.
As Rachel’s influence increases the screen fills up with women – at the estate Christmas party workers’ wives and daughters are finally present, and local bigwigs offer their grown up daughters for games of cribbage and companionship.
Rachel of course assumes her position of lady of the house with ease, making everyone her strange teas, tisanes, made with different herbs to cure any and every ailment.
But having become convinced of Rachel’s perfect goodness, as their blossoming relationship suddenly falters Philip starts to feel unwell and his suspicions are aroused. He starts to wonder if those rumours of her “unbridled extravagance and apparently limitless appetite” (a sentence to be engraved on my gravestone, when I finally die under a collapsing pile of barely-worn shoes after opening my wardrobe door without due preparation) are in fact true.
Crushed by terrible headaches, his mind racing to the dark places that fever opens up, he is treated with yet more tisanes, as the black-clad Rachel brews up her mysterious potions.
And that is the crux of this film. Is Rachel a coldly calculating poisoner or a mistreated victim, trying desperately to build a life unbeholden to convention, and, worse, to violent men? “Did she or didn’t she, who’s to blame?” as Philip himself asks.
My Cousin Rachel is a sensual film but not a very sexy one. Rachel seems to see their relationship as almost maternal and is also in no mood to give up the relative freedom that widowhood has bestowed on her. One rather feels she faces sex with her young lover with a sigh not of anticipation and arousal, but forbearance and resignation.
Rachel could only be played by an actress of the calibre of Rachel Weisz. To tread that incredibly fine “is she/isn’t she” line between wronged victim and heartless, extravagant killer is so difficult to do without slipping into melodrama or predictability. Weisz’s face, whether exposed or hiding behind that black lace veil, conveys so much emotion but the same expression can mean two different things depending on our current point of view, which shifts as often as the sands beneath the waves in their favourite bay.
Clafin too is excellent as Philip, a man-boy with too much money, and no real understanding of (or wish to understand) anyone else’s motivation. He is, as she says, puppy-like, bouncily enthusiastic and with the means to fulfil his rash whims instantly.
It would be reassuring to think that we’ve moved on from seeing women as evil or virtuous, when we are all somewhere in between, but we haven’t, and as loyalties and alliances shift in the film so do ours.
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