You may have killed my cousin. What are you doing this weekend?

Movies

Victorian-Era Soap Opera My Cousin Rachel Is a Pretty Mess

This handsomely mounted period piece provides a melodramatic tale of romance and deception needing an approach that’s more edgy and less polished.

It contains Hitchcockian themes of obsession, betrayal and revenge, yet My Cousin Rachel never fulfills such lofty ambitions.

This handsomely mounted period piece is adapted from a novel by British writer Daphne de Maurier — whose other works provided the basis for Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and The Birds — although its melodramatic tale of romance and deception needs an approach that’s more edgy and less polished.

The story takes place in the 1830s, when Philip (Sam Claflin) is summoned to an English coastal mansion after a harrowing note from Ambrose, his closest cousin. He arrives only to find out Ambrose has died from a brain tumor, and his widow, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), will be arriving imminently to sort out his affairs.

Ambrose’s letters give Philip plenty of ammunition for suspicion and revenge, yet when he meets Rachel, any resentment and hostility is replaced by affection, to the extent that Philip insists on remaining in the house as Rachel’s companion.

Against the advice of those around him, including his godfather (Iain Glen) — acting as the guardian of the estate until Philip’s upcoming 25th birthday — he woos Rachel with extravagance and ignores hints that she might be exactly as Ambrose described, after all.

Although it’s not technically a remake of the 1952 film of the same name, starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, the screenplay by veteran director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) is derived from the same source material.

The film achieves a modest tension through its unsettling atmosphere, although there’s a general predictability to the story that undermines the mystery and can’t be erased by a few jolting twists.

More problematic is the lack of emotional investment in a pair of characters whose narrow-minded naivete erodes all of their common sense. The film is structured in such a way that moviegoers almost always know more than Rachel or Philip, and we’re forced to wait for the inevitable hammer to drop on their doomed relationship. It’s only a matter of when and how, not if.

Since it’s all so tastefully packaged — with a touch of Victorian-era British stuffiness — many of the clues lack subtlety and surprise, and feel like narrative stall tactics. There’s not enough sizzle between the two stars to set off fireworks, so perhaps a campier modus operandi would be more impactful. After all, jeering them is better than ignoring them.

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