My Cousin Rachel: What’s Your Poison?

DATELINE: Updates & Remakes

 Claflinor Burton original

Novelist Daphne Du Maurier has been both blessed and condemned by being associated forever with Alfred Hitchcock. He made both their names synonymous with mysterious melodrama after the mesmerizing Rebecca came out in 1941.

Ten years later Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton made My Cousin Rachel with George Cukor, but he quit the film in pre-production after both he and Miss Du Maurier criticized the script. The film was successful nonetheless with director Henry Koster.

So, we come to 2017 when director Roger Michell makes a stab at re-doing the lush period piece with its conflicting and misunderstood characters, Rachel and Philip. The film is beautiful to look at and raises more complexity in the relationships of the characters.

In a nutshell Rachel has married Philip’s cousin and adoptive father Ambrose in Italy. There, Ambrose sends his young ward letters indicating his new wife is poisoning him. According to authorities, Ambrose had a brain tumor that made him paranoid.

However, Philip is not so sure: perhaps he too is a bit paranoid, suspecting Rachel of being a master manipulator of exotic poison. Perhaps she is also plotting to poison him too.

Wonderful and swaggering, Sam Claflin as Philip is no Richard Burton. It is unfair to expect him to be, and Rachel Weisz seems a tad too young for the dangerous older woman. Yet, they convey more subtlety than you might expect.

There are hints and foreshadows everywhere that Philip was more than a ward to Ambrose, and he is inexperienced with women, adding to his possible misconstruing of Rachel’s personality. He also seems to have inherited his “cousin’s” paranoia, perhaps caused by a brain tumor.

The film has occasional lapses of moral rectitude of the era of English country life with Rachel and Philip bursting into each other’s bedrooms in violation of social norms of the period. That aside, this is a sumptuous film that has double-edged suspicions on both sides of Philip and Rachel.

We must laud any film of diligence and intelligence in this day of cartoonish, noise-filled superheroes. We hope today’s audiences can understand subtext while watching this film.

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