Philip (Sam Claflin) was brought up by his older cousin after he was orphaned, a man he adored and once he was grown, always planned to return to his country house and live there with him no matter what. However, there were complications; he returned all right, but his guardian was spending time in Italy and kept up a correspondence telling him he had found love abroad with the mysterious Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and he was very happy. Philip was a little put out that he would need anyone else other than him, but increasingly became perturbed when the tone of the letters grew more sinister and desperate - was this Rachel doing all in her power to kill his surrogate parent?
Daphne du Maurier's bestselling novel My Cousin Rachel had been filmed before in 1952 when Olivia De Havilland took the title role, with a confused Richard Burton alternately lusting after her and fearing her. Some like that version, but most felt the essential tension in the book was replaced with a rather anaemic mystery plot, which given the eventual resolution was not the most satisfying of results. And guess what? The same was true of director and screenwriter Roger Michell's version, praised for its pictorial qualities but hard to get enthusiastic about when it built up to an ending that was determined to sustain its enigma, yet did not wholly justify its telling as a major motion picture.
Certainly Weisz was well-cast as Rachel, with just the right amount of questioning placed in the audience's minds to have us at least intrigued as to what was going on in her head, one minute vulnerable and sensitive, the next more sexually forward. With that mixture it was little wonder Philip couldn't make up his mind about his cousin's widow (which apparently makes her his cousin too - is that genealogically correct?), and also went some way to explaining why, when he has made up his mind to have it out with her when she finally turns up at the estate, she is so disarming to him that he is taken aback and treats her a lot more politely in person than he ever would had they not met.
And yet, the trouble with staying engaged lay with Philip, not Rachel; once you accepted you would never work out the widow, your sympathies moved to him, and it was very difficult to appreciate any of his finer qualities when he came across as such a dullard from the start of the movie right to the last scene. When he falls in love with Rachel, he begins to behave irrationally, for example giving her a family heirloom in the form of a precious necklace as a Christmas present - all is going well at the party with the locals invited to their dining hall, the lights on the tree glowing, singing, feasting, as with much of this conveying a rich atmosphere visually, but then the lawyer Iain Glen pulls Philip up short when he asks him what the hell he thinks he is doing handing over such expensive jewellery to a woman who may be a gold digger?
It should be a wake-up call to our hapless hero, but it merely makes him dig his heels in by which point you start to wonder why you are bothering with him at all, and that he deserves everything Rachel, or anyone else, has in mind as a fate for him. It was all very well for Michell to present du Maurier's tale as an item of heritage cinema with its sweeping Devonian landscapes and Rael Jones' tasteful soundtrack, but it felt as if this was pushing against the more feminist leanings of the plot, with Rachel an independent woman in a Victorian society and finding ways of wending her way through all the obstacles that would bring up. It was all very well to show she and Philip having clothes on outdoor sex, but there was nothing to indicate an erotic charge about any of this, especially when the trappings screamed doomed, swooning romance rather than lusty, illicit affair. What you wound up with was a film that had all the chances to truly take off and fly, yet preferred to smile prettily, eyes downcast and keeping itself to itself.