My Cousin Rachel (2017) Dir. Roger Michell

In appearance the settings for the film – Florence and Cornwall – the interiors of the house etc all seem pitch perfect as do the script and the finely judged acting from Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz.  We do not know what Rachel looked like but she could have looked exactly like this other Rachel. In short, it is beautifully shot with elegant Cornish panoramas, lonely rainswept beaches, impeccably clad gentleman on highly groomed horses, all laced with a liberal quantity of servants and picturesque stable lads.

So far so good. But Daphne du Maurier’s book is a complex work to bring to the screen; much of the ‘plot’ is internalized and much of it hinges on paranoia or suspected paranoia. It would be an achievement to pull off a film version without resorting to one or two little dramatic ‘interventions’ and those can easily upset the delicate ecological balance of the work.

While Rachel certainly has her own voice (unlike du Maurier’s other famous creation Rebecca de Winter) we do not hear much of it. The book is weighed down with the male narrative gaze, with male desire both sexual and for financial control. In so many ways Rachel appears not to have an opportunity to respond; or maybe she has opportunities but deliberately chooses not to take them. Or her responses appear ambiguous. It depends who you believe. Most of what we know about her we know from something a man has said. This is the master craft of the novelist.

This to me is where the film – despite strong central performances – errs. It tries to explain things which the book leaves open to the reader’s conjecture. What is the cause of Ambrose’s death? Brain tumour say the Florentine lot (of which Rachel is one). Poisoning, writes Ambrose in letters found after his death. So where are the instruments of poison? Laburnum seeds? Where is all the money going? Why does Philip mysteriously become ill after Rachel’s arrival. What the heck is she putting in those tissanes? All mysteries aimed at making us think Rachel is potentially wicked (fantastic cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ by sorry not sure who  played over the film trailer on the internet sadly doesn’t seem to have been used in the film).

But if Rachel is potentially wicked she is also a woman alone in the world who found herself ‘married to a stranger’ when Ambrose became ill and had to find her own way. As Sally Beauman points out in her introduction (Virago, 2003) laburnum seeds are a red herring. The real poison being examined by Daphne du Maurier in this novel are how whole lives, whole societies have been and continue to be defined by male authority. Perhaps the temptation to shout this from the rooftops overcame the film Director. Is it not 2017? Are there not thirty years solid of feminist literary interpretation coursing through the bloodstream of the land?

In the film although Philip hunts for Laburnum seeds in Rachel’s bedroom he does not appear to find any. In the book he does. There is no suggestion in the book that Rainaldi (Rachel’s lawyer, adviser and ‘friend’) is homosexual.   The fact that the film insists on this point makes us less inclined to suspect Rachel of an affair.  Was I being asked to consider Rachel a victim of a patriarchal gig? That is not I feel how the author would have seen her.

 

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