Technically, My Cousin Rachel is a gothic romance. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: A mysterious death, a desiccated mansion in the hills, a forbidden romance. It’s even based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, who wrote Rebecca. But at the same time, the film is downright light on its feet, almost frisky, and it gooses our expectations at every turn. In 2015, Guillermo del Toro gave us the obscenely luscious and violent Crimson Peak, a similarly postmodern film which took every element of gothic romance and turned it up to 11. This one is the opposite: Think of it as gothic lite.
The set up is simple: Young Philip (Sam Clafin) has been raised by his lookalike cousin Ambrose (also Clafin), who leaves their small village to tend to his health. While gone, Ambrose meets and marries Rachel. At first, he sends home gushy letters about how happy he is. Then the letters stop and, after some time, an alarming new one arrives: Ambrose reports that he is sick and he believers that Rachel is responsible. Come quick, he tells his cousin.
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Philip hops on a horse and gallops to Ambrose’s home. No one is home but the dandy-ish Italian man, Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), who informs Philip that Ambrose is dead and Rachel has gone away. Philip angrily rides back to his manor, where he stews as he waits for Rachel to arrive, determined to exact his revenge. Of course, the moment he sets eye on his new “cousin” we know he’s toast. Rachel Weisz plays Rachel with an intoxicating mixture of poise, sweetness, and self-possession. She’s the kind of woman who has all men in her thrall. Less enamored is Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger), Philip’s neighbor—and the daughter of Philip’s godfather, played by Iain Glen—who expected to become Philip’s wife.
The beauty of My Cousin Rachel is watching Philip fall deeper and deeper under Rachel’s spell. He is totally besotted—giddy with the throes of first love (and lust)—and we think he’s a sap. (Claflin is great in this role—playing Philip with complete earnestness, which is exactly what makes him so funny.) By the time he decides to turn over the deed to his cousin’s manor to Rachel, the audience is practically screaming, “Nooooo!” at the screen. (And why oh why does he keep drinking Rachel’s special herbal remedy tea?) Nonetheless, we’re enchanted by Rachel, too. How could we not be, with Weisz playing her with such beguiling charm? Her side of the story is that Ambrose, sick with a brain tumor, became paranoid and demented by the end. Could she actually be telling the truth?
Suffice it so say that director Roger Michall keeps us guessing the whole time. See the film in a crowded theater and enjoy not just the gorgeous settings—verdant fields, ominous cliffs, and lush interiors filled with thick books and dainty tea sets—but the shared fun of delighting in Philip’s folly.