Sunday, September 23, 2018
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'My Cousin Rachel' is a Victorian black widow mystery so classy it's practically defiant

Roger Michell's revival of My Cousin Rachel is a graceful note amid summer's movie din, adapting Daphne du Maurier's black widow mystery with class bordering on defiance.

Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz plays enigmatic Rachel Ashley, returning to the farming estate of her recently deceased husband. Awaiting her is second cousin Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), who suspects she may have poisoned his friend and mentor.

"Did she? Didn't she? Who's to blame?" Philip asks in voiceover as Michell's movie begins. By the end we'll have answers while the meaning of those questions has changed. There's no grandiose reveal, rather a slow drip of truth after torrential Victorian obsession.

Initially the obsession is Philip's for revenge. Ambrose Ashley took him in when orphaned, taught him how to be a gentleman. Poor health forced Ambrose from England to Florence's warmer climate, where he met Rachel. Philip felt something wrong when Ambrose married her: "Why would he need a woman? He has me."

Letters from Ambrose disturb even more, escalating claims that Rachel is trying to kill him. But why? Ambrose's will leaves his entire estate to Philip. She has nothing to gain. Propriety demands Philip allow Rachel to live in the mansion. He plans to reveal her guilt, humiliating her in the process.

At this point we, like Philip, haven't met Rachel, setting up Weisz for a stirring introduction. Her beauty shines through widow's black, bravely smiling and humbled, with a blithe approach to decorum that charms. Philip enters the room angry and leaves off-balance, a first ripple of smitten.

People notice Philip's change of heart about Rachel, especially his intended bride Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger). Louise keeps her ideas to herself, as women were expected to do in those days. Rachel is such a vibrant presence, kind and generous to everyone, that nobody would listen, anyway. Perhaps Rachel isn't so bad, or maybe she's plotting to gain Ambrose's estate through Philip. Michell keeps us guessing to the end, at least those unfamiliar with the book or first movie version.

Back in 1952, My Cousin Rachel offered Richard Burton his breakthrough movie role and Olivia de Havilland one of her last great ones. Michell stays close to that era's spirit, resisting to make explicit what Hollywood then repressed. This version feels sexier since common sense is being seduced, a trickier conquest than flesh with smart characters like these.

As Rachel, Weisz plays her cards close to the corset, never tipping off the truth or straining to conceal it. She's beautifully inscrutable, changing our minds with a flash of her eyes or a wounded smile. Claflin counters with a portrait of virginal desire that won't be reined in. He's ripe for picking, if that is Rachel's wish.

Aside from being a quality production, it should be noted that My Cousin Rachel is the third major release in a week anchored by a strong woman character. We've seen comic book fantasy (Wonder Woman), inspiring reality (Megan Leavey) and now a literate period drama. The only way to ensure seeing more like them in the future is seeing these now.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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