It’s easy to pre-condemn period pieces – like, say, this take on famed author Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 throwback potboiler – as yet another droning Masterpiece Theatre snorefest. Except when they work, of course – and My Cousin Rachel works just fine, thank you. Credit Rachel Weisz, who’s just the dynamite actress needed to play a character who could be a misunderstood innocent or a fortune-hunting seductress who could be a cold-blooded killer. How delicious to watch the star keep us guessing.
Adapted by director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) from the novelist’s Victorian-era bodice-ripper, My Cousin Rachel – set along the wave-crashing coast of Cornwall, England – brims over with mystery, suspense and ravishing romance. Yes, there are dull parts, but never when Weisz is onscreen. She plays Rachel, the femme fatale who dramatically changes the life of Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), the 25-year-old ward of her late husband. The first screen version of the book was released in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland as Rachel and Richard Burton, then 27, in his Hollywood debut as Philip. Burton scored a major success and an Oscar nomination; the film itself didn’t make much of dent.
Weisz should change all that. For the first 20 minutes of the film, we don’t even see her – but everyone is talking about this enigmatic young woman. Philip has received letters from his ailing cousin Ambrose, taking the sun in Italy, that Rachel is his “torment.” By the time he visits Florence, her Italian confidante Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) informs him that Ambrose has died and the lady has gone. Philip’s mind is alive with doubt, and he announces his fears to his godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and Nick’s daughter Louise (a splendid Holliday Grainger), who carries a torch for our hero. His focus, however, is on revenge: “Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it.”
Some build-up. Thankfully, Weisz lives up to it and then some. Her black widow’s weeds only enhance her devastating beauty and charm. Philip is besotted. He sees nothing grasping about her, despite a reputation (spread by men, naturally) for lavish spending and bohemian behavior. Is Rachel being punished for the sort of independent thinking that’s foreign to 19th-century society? Philip sees only the good – and, of course, her heaving bosom. Ambrose never signed the will leaving his estate to Rachel; hoping for more than a hook-up, Philip decides to give everything to this older woman who sees him as “a lovely boy.” Then he starts getting headaches and Rachel keeps brewing him her special tea. You can see where this is headed.
Michell keeps the soirees and suspicions moving in a swoony swirl, while Claflin, proving that he’s way more than hot-dude Finnick O’Dair in the Hunger Games franchise, rises to the occasion. The occasion, of course, being a chance to costar with one of the best actresses of her generation in a movie she lights from within. Weisz runs the gamut of emotions even when the script backs her into corners of banality. She’s the reason this old-school nailbiter brims with dread and delight.