Almost every time you sit down to watch a film, you have expectations for that cinematic experience. You know a little bit, if not a lot, about what you are going to get. You know the genre, for example. The actors are familiar. Maybe you’ve seen a trailer and have some shape to the story. And having seen other films of a similar kind, you probably have a sense of how the story will unfold.
These expectations are part of what makes watching movies enjoyable. A film can live up to our, even exceed, our expectations, giving us the best possible version of what we expect. Getting what you expect when you go to the movies is a fun way to spend an evening. But an even better way to spend a night at the movies, is realizing that what you were expecting was the wrong thing altogether.
That’s the territory that My Cousin Rachel treads. Written and directed by Roger Michell (adapted from the novel by Daphne Du Maurier), My Cousin Rachel establishes itself in a familiar manner. It’s a beautiful period piece, starring a mysterious woman suspected of taking advantage of the man she married. The conventions of My Cousin Rachel are well known–we’ve seen similar stories time and again, from the Brontes’ novels to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. That’s the fun of conventions, we can situate ourselves easily and let the story work its magic.
This film concerns the actions of the titular character, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), an Italian woman whose wealthy English husband recently died, reportedly of a brain tumor. Her late husband was the guardian of a young man named Philip (Sam Claflin), who suspects that Rachel killed her husband. When Rachel comes to stay at the English estate now in Philip’s possession, he plans to expose the murder of his guardian and the cruelty of the woman who now wants his fortune. Instead, Philip finds himself bewitched by the beautiful, intoxicating Rachel, and ensnared in a romantic entanglement that could end very badly for everyone.
Michell moves his story with a patience that will likely try some audience members, but the beautiful photography and costuming, combined with the majestic greenery of the English countryside, all pair nicely with the film’s slow, steady pace. Claflin and Weisz are magnetic, and together they anchor the film’s romantic Victorianism. Weisz’s black widow performance is among her best, and builds to a filmic climax that rewards all of the effort put into the patient, methodical endeavor that is My Cousin Rachel.
My Cousin Rachel is a film that plays on expectations, and to go into too much detail would be to spoil the fun of a very good movie. Michell explores film concepts like point of view and perspective bias, and in doing, pivots My Cousin Rachel from a victorian horror story into a surprisingly powerful, relevant affair.