Deep Soap Opera and Villainess (?) in 1830s England

Culture Watch
tags: movie review, My Cousin Rachel

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

When you sit back in the movie theater to see My Cousin Rachel, based on the Daphne DuMaurier heart pounding suspense novel about love in England in the 1830s, you realize right away that the story is pretty similar to any contemporary American television soap opera or made for streaming film. In fact, DuMaurier’s page turner, written in 1951, might have been a saucy addition to Netflix.

My Cousin Rachel is the intriguing tale of an attractive woman, Rachel, whose husband may or may have not been murdered – by her. She does not want to remain at her husband’s estate in Italy where she has allegedly been written out of his will because he thought she was trying to kill him. She travels to England to return to her home and family. There, she gravitates to young Philip Ashley, her husband’s ward (Sam Clafin), about to turn 25, who is smitten with her. He is immediately told all of the rumors, innuendo and gossip about her, in addition to the suspicion of homicide – her profligate spending, gifts to friends and family and lovers. He does not care. He is crazy for her. The very good looking and personable Ashley pursues her relentlessly and even gives her his family’s jewelry as a gift, including a valuable necklace, to win her over. Again, he is warned by everybody to watch out for her, and ignores the warnings.

Rachel leads him on, or does she? He is convinced Rachel is going to marry him, or is she? What does he do if she does not marry him? What to do if she does? Should he stay with her or hope that she leaves his life? The film keeps you guessing right until the last frame.

My Cousin Rachel is a delicious romantic puzzle and a good old English family squabbles tale, and DuMaurier fans will love it. The film has a solid plot, very good acting, sharp direction by Roger Michell and gorgeous, and I mean gorgeous cinematography, especially the many sweeping shots of the lovely, very green English countryside.

The film, produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, has numerous problems. The first ten minutes of the film, when you learn of the death of Rachel’s first husband, Ambrose, is slow and boring. You shake your head and get back into the story when Rachel arrives in England and Ashley falls for her. You can see that Rachel seems to be a vixen, but is she really one or is that just the way people see her? She does bad things, like accept Ashley’s valuable jewels, but then, at the slightest stir of criticism, gives the jewels back. She suddenly decides not to do some things that you are certain she will do. A secret document turns up, a scathing note is found in a book, a n old lover of hers turns up at her doorstep, infuriating Ashley. Biut is he really an old lover or just a friend (what do tightly held hands, just for five seconds, mean anyway?).

But no matter what happens, from tavern get togethers to the alleged poison scheme, there is a slowness to the story. It seems like one of those old English parlor dramas, even with all of its outdoor scenes and people with their personal problems. It trundles along, a few eyebrows raised here and there, a couple of long coughs, and stumbles to its end, which jolts you and makes you wish that the whole movie was as good as the powerful finale.

Director Roger Michell also adapted DuMaurier’s book to the screen, so part of the blame lies with him. He does a fine job of directing the film, though, and gets impressive performances from Clafin as Ashley and Rachel Weisz as Rachel, along with fine work from a stellar cast.

In the movie, there is a lot of interesting history. You learn little about English laws or politics during the first half of the nineteenth century but you do learn much about the lack of rights for women and marriages between cousins. As in the United States at that time, women in England were legally subservient to their husbands. In the film, Rachel must decide between keeping her small fortune if she remains single, or giving it all up to her husband if she marries. The movie also highlights marriages between cousins. It is treated as routine in the film and, indeed, it was. In the 1830s in England, and in the U.S., cousins marrying was not unusual and perfectly legal. Today, about ten percent of all marriages in the world are between first or second cousins.

The film is decent but certainly nowhere near the drama of the movie Rebecca, based on another of DuMaurier’s books, or Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, based on one of her short stories. It also has little of the power of a similar history romance, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, made into a movie with the beautiful Keira Knightly as the heroine.

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