Based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, “My Cousin Rachel” might be looked at by some as a romance of sorts. A bizzare, dark comedy by others. It’s definitely the latter and not the former. But more than that, it’s a tragedy of the gender in that the woman suffers at the hands of a man whose naivete, ego, and warped perspective shape the movie and her into something she clearly isn’t. It would be more laughable if this is something that didn’t happen as often as it does. Directed by Roger Michell, “My Cousin Rachel” is as much passionate as it is despondent, horrific as it is mysterious. Above all, it paints a picture of villainy through the eyes of a man who plays the victim.
Very much a period drama set in England in the nineteenth century, the story follows Philip (Sam Claflin), who is orphaned at a young age and raised by his cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin). Clearly, Philip and Ambrose share a striking resemblance, but as Ambrose grows older and ill, he moves to Italy, convinced that the sunshine will help him to heal. While there, he marries his cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Philip becomes distressed after receiving several letters about how Rachel is poisoning Ambrose’s tea, supposedly killing him. It’s odd given that Ambrose is at first charmed by Rachel and sends a few letters about how much he’s in love with her.
After Ambrose’s death, Philip is convinced that Rachel is evil, that she plotted and schemed to have him killed. But then he discovers that she’s coming to visit and that everything his cousin left after he died would go to him on his twenty-fifth birthday. Once moved in, Philip becomes charmed and smitten with Rachel. She’s kind to him, but there’s never anything indicating that she feels strongly for him in a romantic sense. He, on the other, becomes quite infatuated in a way that leads him to do some highly questionable things.
Philip is clearly an unreliable source of information. He’s sad, intensely naive in an obtuse sort of way, unobservant (he’s asked several times by his godfather if he “understands”), and clings to his own needs. Even more annoying is that Philip eventually victimizes himself when he realizes he isn’t going to get what he wants. His paranoia pushes the audience to question Rachel’s motives the way he does, but it becomes clearer and clearer that he’s the problem.
From a woman’s perspective and in hindsight, Rachel doesn’t once do anything outright that paints her as the villain Philip will have us believe she is. She never promises anything, never asks for money. Philip develops a fantasy for himself and turns into a petty man-child as soon as his reality doesn’t live up to what he’s conjured in his head. It’s incredible the amount of blatant hatred he spews as he continues accusing Rachel of awful things when he’s the one to blame for many of his own woes. It’s Rachel who ends up suffering because of his erratic and selfish behavior, and this speaks to the way women are often treated or portrayed through the eyes of men.
“My Cousin Rachel” is Rachel Weisz at her very best. She portrays Rachel as a kindly, charming woman who seems content with just being and making her way in life the way she sees fit. She accepts Philip’s kindness towards her, but is angered when he goes out of his way to help her monetarily as she sees it as pity and makes it clear she didn’t ask. Somewhere deep down, she feels as if she owes him, but after a certain turn of events, doesn’t cave to his attempted power and control over her. Sam Claflin can be occasionally sweet in his extreme naivete and unhinged in his anger and show of power. The two have good chemistry, that’s for sure, but a romance this movie certainly is not.
Ultimately, “My Cousin Rachel” gives us too much of Philip’s perspective, but at least doesn’t go out of its way to make him particularly sympathetic either. It’s the way the story plays out that is indicative of the nature of storytelling in Hollywood, and perhaps life in general, that we’re always more privy to male characters’ points of view. “My Cousin Rachel” is willing to have us believe that Rachel is perhaps to blame, that there’s something not quite right with her, she’s up to something fishy. At least until the film finally stops to ask, when it’s far too late, who is really the victim? It makes for some decent suspense and has the audience question their own biases as well.
"My Cousin Rachel" is willing to have us believe that Rachel is perhaps to blame, that there's something not quite right with her, she's up to something fishy. At least until the film finally stops to ask, when it's far too late, who is really the victim? It makes for some decent suspense and has the audience question their own biases as well.