There's more than one Wonder Woman in theaters this week. Gliding around in their 1830s finery, the characters in "My Cousin Rachel" wonder a great deal about the alluring woman of the title, a half-English, half-Italian riddle in black lace who may have poisoned her husband, and may be taking her killer widow act on the road to Cornwall. There, in "Rebecca" country (same author), the late husband's adopted son vows revenge but finds himself falling under her spell. In this Gothic realm, the correct answer to the question "Will she KISS me or KILL me?" is: "I'll worry about that later."
Writer-director Roger Michell's pretty, crafty new film version of the 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel boasts many good things. Rachel Weisz is ideal as the du Maurier vixen, a human hall of mirrors, suspiciously careful with her herbal tea preparations one minute, bubbly and vivacious the next, her eyes sparkling with sexual promise both in Minute One and Minute Two. "A woman of … very strong passion," says Rachel's mysterious Italian friend, Rainaldi, played by the mustachioed hambone Pierfrancesco Favino. The actor pauses two or three seconds to smile, evilly, before adding: "Very strong."
Michell, whose work includes the undervalued "Le Week-End" and, once upon a time, "Notting Hill," gets us into the story with a few deftly realized scene-setters. In a voiceover'd montage we meet young orphan Philip Ashley, taken under the loving wing of his cousin Ambrose. Poor health sends Philip's guardian to Italy; letters home to Philip inform the lad, played in young adulthood by Sam Clafin, of Ambrose's infatuation with Rachel and their marriage. Then Ambrose's increasingly erratic correspondence goes from calling Rachel his "kindest companion" to, simply, "my torment."
Rattled, Philip makes way to Florence only to find his cousin dead and Rachel AWOL. The novel by du Maurier, published 13 years after the massive success of "Rebecca," toggles between England and Italy, but it's Rachel's arrival to Philip's Cornish estate, up on a windswept cliff above the sea, that sets callow Philip's heart aflutter. Best known in the U.S. as Finnick Odair (honestly, what a stupid character name) in the "Hunger Games" movies, Clafin settles for a reasonably effective series of poses as opposed to a full, roiling characterization. Weisz and the sharpest supporting players lift "My Cousin Rachel" to a higher plane. Holliday Granger as Philip's smitten family friend; Simon Russell Beale, a truly great actor, as the skeptical family solicitor; Tim Barlow, tottering around as the sublimely crusty servant: These are choice turns.
The 1952 film version starred a demurely miscast Olivia de Havilland and, in a striking Oscar-nominated Hollywood debut, Richard Burton. Michell's version brings in a little more sex and a more expansive visual depiction to du Maurier's story, though "expansive" doesn't always mean "expressive"; a couple of digital effects flourishes, heightening the dangerous cliffs near the manor, belong to a different style of filmmaking altogether.
Rachel herself is what an actress makes of her. The way du Maurier conceived the spidery fatale, she's dangerous, omnivorous sensuality incarnate. The author was writing in code, though pretty obvious code; the bisexual du Maurier acknowledged that she based Rachel on her friend Ellen Doubleday (wife of her American publisher), though they never had an affair. The big love of du Maurier's life, outside her marriage, was actress Gertrude Lawrence, who played a character based on Doubleday in du Maurier's play "September Tide," if you can get your head around that one.
"My Cousin Rachel" falters a bit in the final stretch, due to plot devices (purloined letters and the like) that are familiar to the point of "oh, that old bit." Getting there, however, makes for an entertaining wallow in bad relationship advice from Daphne du Maurier. It's a pity the young Richard Burton wasn't available for Michell's version, but I enjoyed it all the same.
Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.
"My Cousin Rachel" — 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief strong language)
Running time: 1:46
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