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A Gothic Melodrama - ’My Cousin Rachel’

A remake of the 1952 psychological melodrama (first adapted from Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel by Nunnally Johnson and starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton), this new version of My Cousin Rachel was written by director Roger Michell. Beautifully shot on location in Arezzo and Cornwall, the movie exudes the kind of quality production values we have come to expect from such period melodramas, with sweeping panoramas of the country estate inherited by Bamber Gascoigne following the death of his aunt, Mary Innes-Ker, Duchess of Roxburghe. This privileged aristocratic lineage and the class structure that supported it are revealed in every candlelit frame.

The problem lies in the implausibility of the Gothic narrative and the too obviously Oedipal family romance it depicts, with the plot revolving around the somewhat incestuous suggestion implicit in its title. Raised in an all-male household by his guardian uncle, who moves to Italy for health reasons, Phillip (a naive hunk of troubled cheesecake, played by Sam Cafflin) is approaching his twenty-fifth birthday when he learns his uncle has met and married a much younger woman (Rachel Weisz). Rather than describing a state of conjugal bliss, however, his uncle's letters accuse Rachel of foul play and plead for Phillip to rescue him from her clutches. Upon his arrival in Arezzo, Phillip discovers his uncle is dead and Rachel has mysteriously disappeared. As heir to the estate, he returns to Cornwall and assumes the responsibility of running the family farm, vowing revenge should Rachel ever return.

When she reappears on his doorstep, decked out in widow's weeds, Phillip becomes hopelessly infatuated with the beautiful and beguiling Rachel. His chiselled good lucks veer between expressions of youthful exuberance, loving rapture, and tortured self-doubt. We are never quite sure whether Rachel is a manipulative and malignant seductress, or simply a well-intentioned, liberated woman who takes pity on him. The self-possessed Rachel cooly flirts with him as either a flattered older woman or a conniving trickster might. Excluded from her husband's will, she is a woman without means (or any motive to murder), but rumors of her profligate past and clandestine meetings nevertheless soon plant seeds of doubt in Phillip's troubled mind.

Inexplicably believing she will agree to marry him, Phillip instructs his lawyer to transfer the estate to her and his emotional world soon spirals into chaos. Michell's screenplay suggests that Rachel's refusal to be pinned down and sophisticated, proto-feminist outlook make her the victim of Phillip's delusional prejudices, but questions nonetheless linger about her true intentions - are the herbal tisanes she prepares actually poisoning Phillip, or are his headaches and visions the result of the same brain tumor that killed his uncle? Weisz does her best to carry the picture, convincingly playing both angles with both subtlety and grace.

Known both for her range and depth as an actress, she has been working in feature films for over twenty years, including such prestigious projects as Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (1996), Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener (2005), for which she won an Oscar, Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights (2007), Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones (2007), The Whistleblower (2010), and Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea (2011). In Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, released in the US last year, she shared a comic dystopian romance with a crustacean Colin Firth. Weisz was born in 1970, to parents who emigrated to England around 1938, her father a Hungarian psychoanalyst and her mother of Italian and Austrian heritage. She started modeling when she was fourteen and began acting as a student at Cambridge, where she formed a theatre company named "Talking Tongues," which won the Guardian Award at the Edinburgh Festival for its take on Neville Southall's Washbag. She went on to star on stage in a lauded revival of Noel Coward's Design For Living, winning the Most Promising Newcomer award from the London Critics' Circle.

After her eight-year relationship with director Darren Aronosky ended in 2010, she married Daniel Craig in a private ceremony in New York the following year. Capable of radiating both great intelligence and beauty (she was ranked as having one of the "most beautiful faces" for 18 consecutive years in the Annual Independent Critics List of the 100 Most Beautiful Famous Faces From Around the World), she has established a position as one of England's most talented actresses. If there is any lingering doubt about her superb taste in film projects, she has cited Nicholas Roeg's psychedelic masterpiece Performance as her favorite film.

After working on Terence Malick's To the Wonder, in which her performance was cut out completely, she clearly appreciates the crucial role of editing in the post-production process - "Film is such a director's medium. You do your performance and then there's the footage and the director has to put it together. That's an incredibly hard thing to do, to put a movie together, set a tone and tell a story. So I try to just work with directors who are really talented, who take risks and are bold. Because why not? It's hard to make an original film. People underestimate it." It is always a mistake, however, to think that any problem encountered during filming can be rectified later in the cutting-room. As a wise producer once said, "If it ain't in the screenplay, it ain't gonna to be in the movie" - and with dialogue as leaden, portentous, and dull as Michell's, this version of My Cousin Rachel was sadly doomed from the outset, despite Weisz' best efforts to redeem it.


ENDS


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