Directed by: Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin
Can a film be compelling if none of its core cast of characters are likeable? My Cousin Rachel attempts to prove that they can, and unfortunately falls short, resulting in a fairly dull time.
The story opens sloppily with heavy exposition, what I can only assume originated as a chunk of the book of the same name left out of the film, explaining that Philip’s (Sam Claflin) cousin/father figure got ill and had to move to Florence to stay with his cousin, a girl named Rachel (Rachel Weisz), who he promptly falls in love with and marries. A single letter comes back to Philip, completely contrary to his prior praise of her, claiming she is slowly killing him in an attempt to acquire his fortunes, but unfortunately he dies before Philip can reach him again. When the widow comes to visit her husband’s home, Philip finds that she wasn’t quite what he expected.
Characterisation wise, Philip is an entitled prick, an idiot, completely irresponsible and overall quite unlikeable. This is a bold move for a film, a medium obsessed with self-insert blank slates and generic good-guy-with-flaws types. Other films that attempt this kind of thing, however, have other characters to root for, and therefore can hold the viewer’s attention more aptly. The entire driving force for this film, however, is the back and forth of the audience’s opinion on Rachel. It’s very hard to root for her when half the time we’re supposed to think she’s a horrendous human being. To the film’s credit, its best aspect is its ability to have the audience constantly shifting its opinion as more information is revealed. It’s a good mystery. I really liked the payoff, and overall found the ending to be the best part of the film.
Both leads do a good job, especially Weisz, who’s performance I found to be pretty nuanced, given the mystery, but my above criticism still applies. Knowing the ending, I might have appreciated her more, but with neither lead being compelling, I had to fight the urge to check my phone.
Pretty much everything else, I found to be average to fine for a Victorian style period piece. There was the occasional unconvincing accent, some really shoddy CGI of Florence, and some awkward editing decisions at times. But in equal measure there was effort put into cinematography to convey symbolism, for better or for worse (one shot was about 80% obscured by an out of focus table).
While I haven’t and don’t intend to read the 1951 novel of the same name from which the film is adapted, I would recommend you read that over seeing this. Alternatively, the 1952 film I’ve read is also superior. The mystery is good, but not worth it in my opinion.