Friday, June 9, 2017

My Cousin Rachel: Relatively dreary

My Cousin Rachel (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sexuality and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Oi ... such a yawn.

This fresh adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is a true Masterpiece Theater melodrama: sweeping English countrysides, coastlines and quaint villages; slow, silent glances exchanged between artificially polite aristocrats; and soft-spoken dialog pregnant with implication.

Having come to believe that his earlier impression of Rachel (Rachel Weisz) was
unjustified, Philip (Sam Claflin) decides to show her the letter — from his deceased
guardian — that prompted such mistrust.
But absent Jane Austen’s verbal wit and sparkle, or the suspense and directorial snap that Alfred Hitchcock brought to his 1940 handling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, this period piece is a rather dull affair ... particularly since Sam Claflin’s protagonist is such a callow, foolish and unforgivably whimpering weenie.

It’s impossible to sympathize with somebody so relentlessly naïve, and who possesses so little personality. He’s like unfinished clay, at the mercy of whoever chooses to mold him.

Nor does director/scripter Roger Michell — who did so much better with Venus and Notting Hill — bring much to these proceedings.

Du Maurier had a habit of giving her protagonists no more than their first names, and thus this saga focuses on Philip (Claflin), orphaned since childhood and raised by his guardian, Ambrose Ashley. The boy grows up on a large country estate on the Cornish coast, where the only women permitted within the walls are the many farm dogs. (Surrey’s West Horsley Place, a lucky find, has just the right mid-19th century ambiance.)

Such details are revealed in a brief narrative flashback, as a grown Philip returns home following a university education that left no significant impression. He finds the estate bereft of its owner, Ambrose’s “health issues” having sent him on a lengthy trip to Italy’s warmer climate. Contact is maintained via letters that Philip shares with his godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), and Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger).

Louise is sweet on Philip, but he’s oblivious to such affection, having no experience in such matters (to a degree that becomes increasingly difficult to credit).

The letters continue; Ambrose writes of meeting and marrying a distant mutual cousin named Rachel. They remain in Italy, and then the tone of his letters changes; it seems clear that Rachel has some sort of unhealthy hold over Ambrose. A final letter begs for Philip’s presence, with haste ... but his arrival in Florence is too late. Ambrose has died, and Rachel has left; all such details are revealed during a curt exchange with Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), a “friend” of Rachel’s whom Ambrose clearly mistrusted.

Back in Cornwall, Philip learns from Kendall that Ambrose never changed his will; Philip remains sole heir to the estate, which will come to him upon his rapidly approaching 25th birthday. This scarcely cheers the young man, enraged over his belief that Rachel somehow caused the death of his beloved guardian. When she sends word of an impending visit, Kendall and Louise caution against “rash” behavior.

They need not have worried. Even in widow’s black, Rachel (Rachel Weisz) is a vision. Philip, cowed by her politeness, deferential manner and apparent fragility, retreats to the cordiality demanded by his upbringing.

Which — right there — is a transition that Claflin can’t begin to sell. Righteous rage to cowed silence, in the blink of an eye? Seriously?

I think not.

And, in turn, all subsequent developments become contrived and equally unpersuasive.

“Subsequent developments” are the bulk of the film, which gets its tension from the did-she/didn’t-she uncertainty that plagues Philip ... but only for a little while. Because (naturally) he falls in love with her, leaving us viewers to determine whether Rachel is a shattered woman trying to make the most of the limitations imposed on her gender by 19th century convention, or a scheming black widow in every sense of the phrase.

Weisz certainly doesn’t give us any definitive clues. At one moment Rachel is stricken and vulnerable, her gaze haunted by the loss of a husband she clearly loved very much; in the next heartbeat, she becomes aloof and snappish — even spiteful — and taunts Philip in the manner of a well-practiced seductress. Weisz handles both extremes with equal conviction, leaving poor Philip (and us) in a puddle of confusion.

Except that, in short order, we become less willing to play along. Claflin’s acting limitations aside, Michell’s script leaves too many hanging chads: too many significant details that remain unexplained. Kendall expresses his concern that Rachel is overdrawn at the bank, having exceeded the very generous allowance Philip has granted her. Where has the money gone? We never find out.

On a minor but equally irritating note, what becomes of the dogs, so ubiquitous in Philip’s life? They oddly gravitate toward Rachel upon her arrival, and then aren’t seen again. Does she eat them, late at night? (Obviously not, but still...)

Michell’s narrative becomes even sloppier in the third act, for reasons that can’t be discussed due to spoilers. Suffice it to say that you’ll have cause to wonder what, precisely, Philip is doing, when he scoops something from the ground at one point. (And you’ll never find out.)

Glen — easily recognized from his long-running role as Jorah Mormont, on Game of Thrones — is note-perfect as the solicitous Kendall, his devotion to Philip obvious in every word and gesture. Glen radiates sincerity and perception, his mood growing increasingly anxious as Philip succumbs to acts of mounting imprudence.

Grainer’s Louise could have been an Austen heroine; the actress manages that perfect blend of surface formality and sharp-eyed intuition, seasoned with the occasional tartly insightful remark that illuminates the young woman’s intelligence. She’s far, far more interesting than Claflin’s tabula rasa Philip.

Poppy Lee Friar and Katherine Pearce are similarly one-dimensional, as the simpering Mary and Belinda Pascoe, daughters of the local parson: bubble-headed adornments probably (sadly) more typical of young women of their era. Their presence here is so fleeting, so inconsequential, that one wonders why Michell bothered to include them.

Mike Eley’s cinematography is appropriately sweeping, with respect to establishing shots of the countrysides and coastline; he also does magical things with candlelight and shadow, within the darkened rooms of the massive Ashley estate. Dinah Collin’s costumes add much to the period verisimilitude, clothing Philip and Kendall in suits that feel appropriate to the impending industrial revolution, and heightening Weisz’s mysterious behavior with a provocative series of black frocks granted individuality by well-placed adornments.

But it’s a classic case of being all dressed up, with nowhere to go. Claflin can’t hold our attention, and even Weisz’s performance turns oddly erratic, as the story moves toward its climax. Rachel’s extremes become so blatant that it becomes difficult to justify them at either end of the did-she/didn’t-she equation.

Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland handled this swooning melodrama far more persuasively, back in 1952 (just one year after Du Maurier’s novel was published). Michell has done nothing to improve upon it.

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