Sunday 23 February 2020

On demand: "My Cousin Rachel"

A period drama that ventures some distance off the Downton track, My Cousin Rachel pulls from Daphne Du Maurier (underread among modern screenwriters) a big old grudge, a nasty battle of the sexes, and a cool commentary on English misapprehensions around foreign nationals that, whether intentionally or not, makes this very much a film of our Brexit moment. The grudge is that of Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), and it concerns the eponymous Rachel, the exotic contessa he believes did for the cousin who took him in as a boy. Here, Rachel is kept offscreen for a good twenty minutes, just enough time for her to be built up in the mind of our suggestible hero (and perhaps any suggestible viewers) as a monstrous, predatory figure; it comes as a jolt, then, when she's eventually revealed as being played by Rachel Weisz, seemingly as delicate as the porcelain she travels to Britain with, yet with a fierce streak that quickly turns the malleable Philip to putty in her hands. As these two begin to cohabit, we realise the premise is not unlike a gender-flipped Rebecca: the suspense lies in whether Rachel really is the sensitive, intelligent, generally admirable widow she takes such care to present as - a prize catch, to all outward intents and purposes - or if Philip has withdrawn his objections too soon, ensuring that Ashley history will repeat itself.

Though it unfolds along a screenfilling stretch of the Cornish coastline - and takes in a picnic in gorgeous, bluebell-littered woods - this is a pretty picture that doesn't entirely dress up the ugliness of its underlying emotions. (In several respects, it feels pre-Downton, as if Iain Softley's Henry James adaptation The Wings of the Dove had been a bigger hit back in 1997.) Roger Michell, writing and directing for once, gets there by paring back some of the extravagances we associate with this genre. Instead of a lavish ball, he stages a Christmas party on the Ashley estate that degenerates into drunken caterwauling and a competition among the assembled extras to determine who can devour their chicken the messiest; and though fine actors pop up among the supporting cast (Donald Sumpter and Simon Russell Beale; Holliday Grainger as a potential love match overlooked once Rachel is on the scene; Iain Glen as Philip's godfather, who spots exactly the trouble his charge is getting into, but knows the boy will only do as he will), they're held at something of a remove, Michell sensing - as these characters sense - that there will be no cutting in on Philip and Rachel as they circle one another in what could either be a dance of seduction or death. (Or both.)

Neither lead fully convinces as the twentysomethings Du Maurier wrote - we have too much history with the actors - but they succeed in making this dance compelling for the most part. Claflin has become an unfussy specialist in the depiction of weak men, which makes him a boon for any filmmaker trying to do something different within the confines of costume drama (cf. the recent The Nightingale): here, he establishes how Philip's pliant infatuation is but an extension of his earlier misogyny, making the shift in the character's thinking more plausible. He makes a convincingly callow hothead, and almost gets us past the final-act problem that the audience can see what's thundering up Philip's driveway long before this besotted fool can. Weisz does skilful work with a tougher assignment, which is not to give the game away too soon, to remain on some level unknowable. (Michell aids her cause by shooting Rachel through veils and curtains for a while.) She twists us round her finger, to some degree: we warm to her giggling Juliet as Philip climbs through her bedroom window one night, though it's a bad sign that she sleeps with him only after he's emptied the contents of a bag of jewels on her mattress. The film, it turns out, is the real black widow: it watches on as a domestic power game becomes ever more twisted, waits for the fateful moment, and then strikes. The quiet ruthlessness throttles costumed complacency.

My Cousin Rachel is streaming on All4 until Wednesday. 

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