Here is a movie that has everything going for it.
It is a 19th-century story about a mysterious woman whose nature is either lovely or diabolical, as told by a naive young man who is unable to make sense of her, whoever she is and whatever her story.
It is the second film version of a popular 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel. The first movie, in 1952, was a big hit that established Richard Burton as a major-league movie star.
It has talented Rachel Weisz playing the title role and keeping everyone guessing about her true nature.
Its cinematography and music are wonderful. The secondary characters are rendered well. The physical setting, Cornwall, is a gorgeous feast of views of land and sea and a bed of bluebells.
Despite all this, the movie doesn’t quite work. It feels strangely flat.
I’m no cineaste, but I offer three possible reasons why “My Cousin Rachel” is a disappointment.
1) The young actor, Sam Claflin, playing Philip Ashley, doesn’t convince the film audience that he really means what his character is saying.
2) The script is so focused on the Rachel character that it doesn’t give actor Claflin enough room to assert himself.
3) The story is too limited. Great tales of the 1800s were of broader scale. Think Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo.
We may have conditioned ourselves to expect more context from 19th-century authors and more intimate drama from the 20th century onward.
Certainly, the popularity of self-referential millennial memoir in recent years would support this hypothesis.
Daphne du Maurier
This novelist’s most enduring work “Rebecca,” has been the subject of at least two movies, a stage drama and multiple radio plays.
“Rebecca” is the semi-autobiographical story of a young, unnamed woman who marries an older man, a widower whose home is maintained by a harsh family servant who remains devoted to the dead mistress, Rebecca.
Like “My Cousin Rachel,” “Rebecca” has been filmed twice, with two different ending details, generally to suit the tastes of the times.
Interestingly to me, a du Maurier short story, “The Birds,” was the source material for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful movies.