The words “your reputation precedes you” may as well have been coined with “My Cousin Rachel” in mind: From the title of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, which stirs an air of fevered anticipation around a character that doesn’t actually make her entrance until more than 20 minutes into the story, to the wild rumors swirling around her early on — that she’s a sex fiend, a murderess and maybe even a witch — “My Cousin Rachel” encourages us to jump to conclusions before using its tricksy ways to call all of those hasty half-truths into question.
Du Maurier’s novel was adapted for the big screen once before, with Olivia de Havilland in the title role, though the enigmatic antiheroine has never been as seductive, cunning or deliciously ambiguous as she is in the hands of Rachel Weisz, who steps into a character practically overshadowed by others’ idea of her and unlocks more hidden dimensions than we might have thought possible. Whereas it was Richard Burton’s Philip whom Rachel seduced in the 1952 version, the update offers a shirtless, stubble-bearded Sam Claflin (Finnick O’Dair in the “Hunger Games” franchise) in his place, all but ensuring that Weisz dominates the picture.
Female characters are seldom allowed to loom so large, and “My Cousin Rachel” reminds what a delight it can be when they do — which surely explains why Fox thought to revive this classic title, whose overripe 1952 sensibility (with its gothic sets, silvery cinematography and wall-to-wall score) leaves the novel open for an update. Even if this Searchlight-backed refresh is bound to have a relatively short shelf life, in “Notting Hill” director Roger Michell’s hands, it makes for a smart summer counter-programmer: While “Wonder Woman” wows the fanboys, art-house crowds have their own mysterious lady to marvel over.
Until Rachel’s arrival, the Ashley estate — an atmospheric stretch of green-grey marshes and moors along the coast of Cornwall, England, given texture through Rael Jones’ hypnotically repetitive piano score — is a nearly all-male domain. As a boy, Claflin’s orphaned Philip was raised there by his considerably older cousin Ambrose, who falls ill at one point and ships off to warmer climes to mend his health. While Ambrose is recovering in Florence, Italy, Philip starts to feel like the man of the manor, which he’s positioned to inherit when Ambrose dies. But then a series of strange letters start to arrive, first announcing how Ambrose has fallen in love and plans to get married, and then, referring to his wife as “Rachel, my torment” and insisting that Philip come quickly to his aid.
At this point, the only love young Philip has ever known is the one he feels toward his guardian, and now, flushed with concern, he travels to the sunshine of Florence (which stands in stark contrast with the overcast and shadowy Cornwall) to find Ambrose dead and Rachel gone. In her place is a strange Italian man, Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), who could conceivably be another of Rachel’s lovers. Philip is outraged, vowing revenge upon the black widow: “Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it.”
In Philip’s youthful naïveté, his hatred of Rachel manifests itself as a kind of misogyny, in which he holds womankind responsible for Ambrose’s death (when, in fact, the condition seems to have originated at Cornwall). Apart from tomboyish family friend Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger), who clearly dotes upon the young bachelor, Philip has had so little experience with the fairer sex that he’s entirely unprepared for the effect Rachel herself will have on him — but, of course, she’s not at all the monster he had imagined, and in fact, he starts to fall for her from the moment they finally meet.
It’s pure pleasure to watch Weisz as Rachel, who is also an actress of sorts, adapting to suit the needs and desires of whoever she’s seducing. Her manipulations feel more intuitive than conniving and need not be explicitly sexual per se. In Philip’s case, when she assumes a nurturing dynamic, as if trying to provide him with the mother he has always lacked. (Yet things take a carnal turn after a point, when he can no longer control his physical urges.) In return, she receives an allowance and a measure of stability, without forcing her to remarry.
Since Ambrose never got around to including her in his will, Rachel is doing what society requires of her, and before long, she has convinced Philip to sign over the entire estate as only the best con artists can, in such a way that he thinks it’s his idea. To everyone else — whether Louise and her skeptical father (Iain Glen) or the audience itself — Philip’s obsession seems a cause for alarm, as Claflin transforms the character from a rational, level-headed young gentleman to a wild-eyed dope fiend, where Rachel is his drug. When he doesn’t get what he wants, Philip first throws tantrums (as when he’s forced to take back his mother’s pearls, which he’d given to Rachel as a Christmas gift) and later falls dangerously and deliriously ill.
As written, we’re meant to wonder whether Rachel may be directly responsible for Philip’s rapidly declining health, which could be the product of her home-brewed tisana recipe (the very mention of the exotic tea sounds poisonous on Weisz’s tongue). By this point, Philip’s paranoia is starting to get the better of him, and yet, Michell cheats, trying to create ambiguity by depriving the audience of information that the characters themselves have access to in the final stretch.
By contrast with du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” in which the title character haunts the novel even though she never appears, on screen, it’s hard to maintain the aura of mystery that surrounds Rachel’s motives. The more explaining the script does, the less we’re allowed to lose ourselves in the dark shadows of Weisz’s performance, which is where the character’s sense of dimension comes from in the first place.