The best works of Daphne du Maurier carry with them an aura of spectral presence; the sensation of memory hanging long over the gothic architecture of her dark romantic mysteries like a mist over her otherwise scenic Cornwall settings. My Cousin Rachel is such a work that holds a spine tingling sense of the paranormal over its narrative without ever once giving in to such distraction. This is the first adaptation of said text to enter the medium since Henry Koster’s 1952 feature, and Roger Michell’s take on the material is an exquisite, lingering exploration of the same text that stands proud on its own.
It shares similarities to Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, as a period piece that is delicately trained to focus on the textural pallet of the setting and dressing of the authentic looking and beautifully physical environments of rural estates. Mike Eley’s cinematography gives the film a classical sense of composition, that stays poised with a contemporary method of shooting and editing to keep up a pace and authenticity.
At the centre of the piece is a spellbinding performance from Rachel Weisz as the titular Rachel, who balances all the emotional complexities of her cryptic figure with self-assurance in that she may be playing the character in one way, although the film would suggest another entirely. It’s a slight of hand that works devilishly well and in favour of Rachel’s apparent allure. The camera is as struck by her beauty and modesty as Sam Claflin’s young Philip who is both wary and bewitched by this undeviating presence that has entered his home –in tow with the dogs that follow her upward to her chambers at night.
The ghostly presence that suspends its tension over the narrative is rather excellent, especially considering that many of the story’s main plot elements have been assimilated into culture to such an extent that expectation and surprise is lost on a narrative that is being so faithfully told without major embellishment. There are exceptions here and there – the relocation of the fateful climax is setup in an oddly obvious and tone-deaf manner – but its restraint is otherwise sound and compelling. As are the supporting performances from Iain Glan and Holliday Grainger in roles that hold greater depths than the characters themselves might hold on paper.
It's not without flaws as the wrap-up comes a little fast and without time to decompress, but Weisz’s performance is so tremendously powerful and convincing that it all but fills in the gaps of what is unquestionably Roger Michell’s best film since Venus nearly a decade ago.