Tropic Sprockets / My Cousin Rachel

By Ian Brockway

This adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel” by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) is teasingly slow. With gorgeous cinematography and handsome production, the film unfolds like a glossy Masterpiece Theater epic but be warned: this film is not brought  by your grandfather’s PBS. It packs a punch and is far from sedate.

Philip (Sam Claflin) is emotionally close to his far away cousin Ambrose. Gradually Philip reads disturbing letters from Ambrose pleading that he is fearful of his life and specifically his wife Rachel, also a cousin. Philip is stupified. Then he receives a visit from a lurking man named Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) who tells him Ambrose is dead from a tumor. The letters were so dire, Philip reasons, that surely Rachel had something to do with his sudden death.

Philip gets a letter from Rachel who wishes to pay a visit. A vexed and sweaty Philip vows revenge.

Night descends and word from Rachel is sparse, her whereabouts uncertain. Philip questions the groundsman who tells him Rachel is upstairs, resting comfortably. Barging in, Philip is immediately entranced by the cousin in black.

Rachel (Rachel Weisz) is quiet, moody and opaque. Noticing that she indeed has a stuttering and spaced out effect upon him,  Rachel throws a few crumbs of affection his way then coldly pulls back. Soon she has Philip begging for a goodnight kiss so that he can fall asleep.

Weisz is terrific here and she clearly has fun with the role. The apprehension builds and builds (along with countless cups of dubious tea) illustrating a case of submission and wanting that is out of control. Although this is a mystery through and though, a sense of transgression is never far behind and the entertainment comes from wondering just how reckless the drama is going to get. One can almost see Philip growing unfortunate horns as he is increasingly played and put upon.

Holliday Grainger gives a fine turn as Louise, a family friend and crush who is the only one who strongly warns him.

The lasting question of the film is in the nature of villiany, the concept of ‘just desserts’ and the duration of guilt. Is Rachel the insidious one or Philip? There are cases for both.

The real fright of this film is the condition of two people being unhinged by romance. Like “Fatal Attraction” a century earlier, this story informs that the limits are boundless. 

Though some will undoubtedly see “My Cousin Rachel”  in the mode of Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith, the tension is unique to du Maurier, softly winding and escalating by degrees with a conclusion that is as existential as it is blunt.

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