The world needed a new My Cousin Rachel. Daphne Du Maurier's 1951 novel of paranoid Gothic romance* was adapted into a perfectly adequate 1952 film most notable for being the American debut of Richard Burton; it's perfectly enjoyable as a melodramatic mystery (non-fans of Olivia de Havilland might want to convert that "perfectly" to "slightly"), but not much more than just another literary thriller with costume drama pretensions, a more substantially populated mid-century genre than you might suppose.

So the word of a new My Cousin Rachel coming out seemed promising enough; casting Rachel Weisz as the title character was a brilliant stroke that convinced me there was a good chance the filmmakers knew just what they were doing. And now, having finally caught up with the movie, my response turns out to be a resounding "oh, okay then". Weisz is definitely terrific, though not in a way she hasn't been terrific before; and the same caveats apply to hear as applied to de Havilland, which is that she's an actor prone to foregrounding her work and choices in a way that I tend to find appealingly intellectualized, while acknowledging that she's quite a divisive star. And just as I'd gently warn off a de Havilland hater from My Cousin Rachel '52, I'd suggest that a Weisz hater similarly veer away from My Cousin Rachel '17; she really is the totality of what's actively "great" in a film that has a hard time even maintaining "good enough".

The story, in all versions, is a little bit of kinked of tension centered on Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, this time around), who was orphaned as a toddler and has since then been raised on an estate in Cornwall owned by his adult cousin Ambrose. Shortly before Philip reaches his majority, Ambrose leaves for Italy, hoping to restore his perpetual ill-health; the young man stays behind under the care of his godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), flirting chastely with Kendall's daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger).

Then the letters start coming: Ambrose has met a half-Italian distant cousin, Rachel, and is falling in love with her. As the trip to Italy stretches on, Ambrose marries, begins to feel ill, begins to grow uncertain that Rachel and her friend Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) have his best interests in mind, and eventually dies. Philip suspects foul play, supposing that Rachel and Rainaldi murdered Ambrose to get at the estate which Philip is himself to inherit on his impending 25th birthday. And this suspicion continues when Rachel appears in Cornwall in the flesh, though now it's tempered by something else: Philip finds himself quite attracted to the beautiful, sorrowful older woman. And thus we arrive at the meat of the story, with Philip's lust and paranoia waging war for dominance, with Rachel herself remaining so pointedly aloof that neither he nor anyone can point to anything specific that's untrustworthy about her.

I don't know, maybe it only works in prose, though I'd suppose the exact opposite would be the case. Weisz is, anyways, exactly suited to the requirements of the role: very beautiful, always looks like she's thinking a lot more than she's saying, and while she's very warm and kind in her voice, her posture and facial expressions have a tight chilliness about them. So insofar as the film wants us to stick inside Philip's head and wonder along with him what the hell she's up to, it succeeds.

The rest of it is okay, though never very inspired. Director and screenwriter Roger Michell gets a little over-invested in the surfaces of this material, I'd say; it's an impeccably-composed movie, thanks to cinematographer Mike Eley, and even more impeccably appointed by production designer Alice Normington and set decorator Barbara Herman-Skelding). That impeccability comes at the very obvious cost of the human beings, typically Michell's best strength as a director; while there's at least one surprisingly decent performance here, Claflin's (although it's probably harsher than I need to be if I say it's his only good work in a movie, it is surely at least his best), the general vibe of the thing is that the people are getting a bit swallowed up by the world around them. And perhaps you could even get something out of that, in a 19th Century costume drama, My Cousin Rachel isn't the material for it, and this particular My Cousin Rachel isn't actually trying to do it.

And so it's all very blandly watchable: the plot is interesting because the plot is interesting, but I, for myself, had no success engaging with the film on any sort of emotional level. There are a few interesting grace notes that come close to doing something interesting: editor Kristina Hetherington clips the beginnings and ends of scenes a little too close for comfort, resulting in  jagged little shards of time passing by in an irregular flow. It's hard to keep exact track of where we are in time, and the movie offers the sense of time jumping ahead faster than be monitored or controlled. And that's kind of neat, and kind of tensely exciting, and kind of ties into the themes of the story. Kind of.

But mostly, it's just a passable-or-thereabouts film that offers the usual pleasures of the genre - pretty costumes, pretty sets - and nothing beyond that. Weisz completists, such as myself, have a natural reason to check the film out and ample reason to be happy they did so, but there's not a lot else going on in My Cousin Rachel, and while I suppose there was plenty of room for a worse adaptation than the satisfactory 1952 version, I'm still disappointed that these filmmakers managed to hit that low target.




*My favorite of her books, I'd say; except I've never read Rebecca, which means that my opinion legitimately doesn't count.