PLOT A young man falls for a woman who may or may not be trying to kill him.
CAST Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Holliday Grainger
RATED PG-13 (sexuality and adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE An elegant, sumptuous and subtle adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel.
The Gothic novel is making a minor comeback to the big screen, at least judging by “The Beguiled,” Sofia Coppola’s upcoming drama and the current release “My Cousin Rachel,” Roger Michell’s handsome adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s mystery about lust and madness among the English gentry. “My Cousin Rachel” is a moody chiller in the grand old Hollywood style, full of flickering candles, spidery handwriting and the ghostly roar of the sea. Yet it also takes on a contemporary resonance by casting light on patriarchal privilege and women’s limited lives in a bygone era.
The movie is set almost entirely on one of those massive countryside estates that seem to have been built solely to impart a sense of doom. It’s a boys-only club run by Ambrose Ashley (Sam Claflin), who serves as a loving father to his orphaned cousin, Philip (also played by Claflin). During a trip to Florence, Ambrose unexpectedly marries his cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and never returns. Judging from Ambrose’s letters home, Rachel is either holding him captive somehow, or he has gone mad from a brain tumor.
Is it out of familial duty that Rachel comes to meet Philip after Ambrose’s death? Or is she planning to trick Philip out of the fortune he inherited? Philip isn’t sure, but this self-possessed beauty from abroad somehow enchants him far more than local girls. Against his lawyers’ advice, the smitten Philip begins signing away all he owns to Rachel, hoping to marry her.
Writer-director Michell (“Hyde Park on Hudson”) does a fine job of distinguishing “My Cousin Rachel” from the 1952 version, which starred Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Part of that is due to the actors: Claflin is excellent as a boy in a man’s body — and with a man’s social entitlements — while Weisz’s Rachel strikes just the right balance between sparkling charm and spooky allure.
Their relationship ends tragically, of course — we’re in Gothic territory, remember — but the question is why? It’s possible that Rachel is neither murderous nor conniving, but something far more dangerous: independent.