Veteran Weisz anchors melodramatic 'My Cousin Rachel'

Posted June 11

“MY COUSIN RACHEL” — 2½ stars — Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger; PG-13 (some sexuality and brief strong language); in general release

Based on the 1951 book by author Daphne du Maurier, “My Cousin Rachel” is the story of a wealthy 19th-century career bachelor who falls in love with his cousin’s widow.

To be fair, that may be oversimplifying things a bit. Your personal verdict on “My Cousin Rachel” will likely depend on your taste for melodramatic period romances, which is to say that director Roger Michell has made an effective film out of a story that may leave you rolling your eyes on the way out of the theater.

The bachelor in question is Philip (Sam Claflin), an orphan who was taken in by his older cousin Ambrose at a young age. For years, they lived a wild, female-free lifestyle on a lavish, unkempt estate in England. Then illness separated the pair, relocating Ambrose to Italy for treatment where he fell in love with a mysterious woman named Rachel and violated the cousins’ 19th-century bro code.

The story picks up as a grown-up Philip gets a cryptic letter from Ambrose insisting that Rachel is trying to destroy him. Philip immediately sets out for Italy where he learns through Rachel’s shady associate Rainaldi that Ambrose has died of a brain tumor. Philip swears vengeance on Rachel, blaming her for his cousin’s demise and summons her to England where he plans to confront her.

Philip’s plans quickly get turned around when he finally meets his cousin’s charming and beautiful widow (played by Rachel Weisz), and he soon finds himself falling for the same woman he swore to destroy. It doesn’t help that Philip bears a striking resemblance to his cousin — Claflin plays the other role in the flashbacks that open the film — and Philip soon begins opening the family coffers to Rachel, all to the concern of his godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and Nick's daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), Philip’s close friend and presumed paramour (until Rachel showed up).

Michell manages to weave the various twists and tangles of the plot without losing track of his audience. The primary question of what really happened to Ambrose (and what is Rachel’s true character) plays against Philip’s battle against his own affections. There’s a vague similarity here to last year’s “Love & Friendship,” which saw Kate Beckinsale eat up a sparkling role as a devious manipulating beauty from one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works.

But where Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon was transparently wicked, Weisz plays things a lot closer to the vest, and the veteran actress is a strong match for her mysterious character. (With another Mummy movie about to come out, it’s amusing to remember Weisz running around with Brendan Fraser in the monster’s last franchise.)

Thanks to beautiful scenery, sharp acting and strong production, “My Cousin Rachel” makes for a competent entry in a genre steeped in such melodrama. If a soap opera of a story can justify itself, then Michell’s audiences should be satisfied. (Readers may also note that du Maurier’s novel has already been brought to the screen in 1952, with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton in the title roles.)

But if you’re trying to pull a coherent message from the movie's web of tragedy, romance and human weakness, you may wind up scratching your head.

“My Cousin Rachel” is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language; running time: 106 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.


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