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Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of a lady in control in My Cousin Rachel feels modern despite the story being set in the 19th century.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
My Cousin Rachel
Written by
Roger Michell
Directed by
Roger Michell
Starring
Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen and Holliday Grainger
Genre
Mystery
Classification
14A
Country
UK/USA
Language
English

"Whatever it cost him pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it." Well, then. That's not Ross talking to Phoebe, and My Cousin Rachel isn't an episode of Friends.

What it is, is Roger Michell's handsome adaptation of the 1951 novel by British author Daphne du Maurier, in which a story of intrigue, obsession and romance ends suddenly and inconclusively – a real Cornish coast cliffhanger, one might say.

What it is, is a delicious black-widow mystery, in which the deep-gazing actress Rachel Weisz rocks the veil.

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What it is, is a refined and rainy-day spinner into a privileged Victorian world of pearls, walnut panelling and and peculiar (possibly poison) tea.

What it is, is an acceptable creation, with the Suffolk native and The Hunger Games actor Sam Claflin giving a fetching performance as a beguiled but increasingly doubtful young gentleman.

What it is, is what it is: A quick, suspenseful-enough 106 minutes of fancy, period-set thrill.

Those old enough to have been hanging around the local Loews in '52 will remember Henry Koster's version of My Cousin Rachel, starring a new-to-Hollywood Richard Burton as Philip Ashley opposite Olivia de Havilland playing the titular relative.

For the 2017 version, we see Weisz on the movie poster, but the story is really about Philip. (We hear about Rachel long before we actually lay eyes on her. Her reputation precedes her like clouds preluding a storm. And she's a foreigner: "That woman in Italy.")

Twenty-four-year-old Philip receives letters from Italy from Ambrose, his older cousin and much-beloved guardian. Ambrose, he learns, has fallen in love and married a distant cousin of theirs, Rachel. Philip is jealous of her from afar. Soon the letters take on a fevered, distressed tone: Ambrose suspects his new wife, Rachel, of poisoning him. An alarmed Philip rushes – or as much as anyone can rush anywhere, back in the day – to Italy, arriving only to find Ambrose dead and Rachel not around. It is determined that a brain tumour caused his demise.

As heir to the estate, Philip takes over Ambrose's coastal mansion in Cornwall, where he seethes and waits on the arrival of Rachel, a woman he believes responsible for Ambrose's death. But when she does show up, suitably all in black, Philip's predetermined despising for her melts away quickly. He soon falls for the older woman, who plays it all – wickedly or maybe innocently – calm and cool.

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Just as Rachel has Philip wrapped around his finger, Weisz controls the popcorn crowd. Although the film is set in the 19th century, her mysterious Rachel feels modern – a lady in control. A little femme here, a little fatale there – her ambiguity is the fulcrum upon which the film teeters.

If we can't be sure about Rachel, we do know about director Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson), who has his bag of tricks open.

Agatha Christie enthusiasts may very well be let down by a film that builds to an unresolved ending. (Well, not completely unresolved.) That being said, My Cousin Rachel will be most period-mystery fans' cup of tea.

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