Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 09, 2017 4:26 pm 
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Foolish boy

The 1951 Daphne Du Maurier novel adapted by the director of this film, Roger Mitchell, is a tidy structure that includes the elements of a Brontesque tale, but not the brooding passion or the mystery, or rather, it never delivers on its hints of these things. Meanwhile what's going to happen (or ought to happen) is never in doubt, and the film, with its handsome young man and dangerous older woman and beautiful scenery, isn't much more than nineteenth-century romantic movie wallpaper.

We begin with an orphan with a godfather and a guardian. And there's a wedding abroad in Italy, a premature death, a foolish passion, a large fortune, a collection of jewels unworn for decades, a devious scheme, a growing suspicion and last-minute escape. We only see the jewels glitter, except for a necklace with pearls as big as snails. Unfortunately, all adds up to little, despite a handsome Cornwall estate to roam. The owner of the estate is Ambrose, whose ill health has necessitated winters in Italy for some years. There, he discovers a cousin, Rachel Ashley (Rachel Weisz), and marries her. Then he falls ill and the orphan, Philip (Sam Clafin), rushes to Italy to find him - too late. Ambrose has died so quickly that he has not changed his will, which leaves everything to Philip, who will come into the inheritance soon, at the age of 25.

But Philip meets Rachel - her appearance has been delayed for twenty minutes, creating a wholly unjustified anticipation. He brings her back to Cornwall and proceeds to fall in love with her. The foreground action that follows this slow setup has, as noted, no surprises. Who in the audience is unaware that Philip is going to fall in love with and woo Rachel, or that she's hanging around for the estate of her late husband (whom she may have killed) to be made over to her? Surely we might not be as stupid as Philip, who insists on giving Rachel the snail-sized-peal necklace to wear for a bawdy, loud local Yuletide celebration. (Surprisingly, it doesn't break apart and fall into the beer mugs; but that will happen later.) Who is not suspicious of the foul-tasting "tisane" Rachel begins virtually force-feeding to Philip? We sure are, at least, when he gets a terrible stomach ache, then loses coonsciousness for five days. We also tend to suspect when Philip has an accident with his horse on the cliff-side that there's danger there - another clumsy hint.

Things don't move very fast, considering how predictable they are. We know Philip's tomboyish local friend Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger) would be a perfect mate for him, despite his hopeless desire for Rachel. We know it's going to take a long time for Philip to get any sense into his head. This I guess is where we see this is essentially the creation of a woman: that this Philip person, the unreliable narrator, is a pretty, hunky and frequently shirtless and stubble-cheeked young man who looks good in and out of clothes, on a horse, in a field, or in front of a damask curtain, but is without an iota of sense.

Rachel Weisz has the better role, certainly, because at least she is mysterious; some think she's a better version of Du Maurier's Rachel than Olivia de Haviland was opposite Richard Burton in the 1952 movie version. (But Burton's Philip had to have been more expressive than Sam Clafin's.) Rachel seems up to no good, but she has a complicated past that Philip's dazzled gaze helps to confuse. There are rumors of sexual impropriety and murder and Weisz appears capable of these activities - though the screenplay doesn't give her the words or the actions to hint at them solidly - or, a chance to hint at something more positive in her nature, either. Philip has no past to speak of and nothing much in his head. His prior romantic or sexual history has not been divulged. There are other characters, which come and go like chess pieces in an uninteresting game. There's the unattractive Italian man called Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino), who's Rachel's "very old friend" and seems to be plotting with her, and there is the lawyer and the godfather, whose good sense Philip ignores.

But Mitchell isn't a very good chess player, because the way he pushes all these pieces around just seems like stalling for time while he keeps the final outcome continually muddy. Now and then throughout we're teased by notes and letters that threaten to reveal all, but never quite do - though it's fun looking at the dark ink handwriting and at one point, seeing a pen-point up close inking in a signature, a moment far more sensual than Philip and Rachel's kisses or awkward hump in the field. The movie is good at conveying the importance of handwritten documents at this time - but not at divulging their contents.

Theoretically, this is a good character for Weisz to play. But at least as adapted, the story is poor stuff. If you want to see Weisz in an intense, rich, and wonderful romantic role, go back six years to Terence Davies' adaptation of Terrence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea , in which she has everything to give and doesn't disappoint. Here, the main satisfaction is the house and grounds, which are photographed conventionally but pleasingly by dp Mike Eley. This is the England of our dreams. Perhaps that is the only real point. And: if you're inheriting a grand estate, don't make it over to anybody else before you turn 25, okay?

My Cousin Rachel, 106 mins., released theatrically in UK, Ireland, and USA 9 June 2017.


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