Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel has a bit of a mixed history on the big and small screens, since while it’s prompted several adaptations none of them have quite entered the canon in the same way as Hitchcock’s versions of Rebecca and The Birds. In part, that’s because it’s a considerably more ambivalent, and even dissonant, novel with respect to its subject matter, and one of the most slyly irreverent novels in Du Maurier’s vast body of work. Written in 1951, it centres initially, on Philip, here played by Sam Clafin, an upper-class orphan who never knows mother, brother or siblings, deflecting all his familial energy into his intense rapport with his cousin Ambrose,. It’s distressing enough, then, when Ambrose moves to Italy and weds, but even more distressing when Philip receives a series of letters from Ambrose suggesting that his new wife and cousin, Rachel Asley, played by Rachel Weisz, has been gradually poisoning him. When news of Ambrose’s death arrives, Philip understandably blames Rachel, but finds it harder to conceive of her as a murderer once she arrives at the estate of his godfather Nick Kendall, played by Iain Glen, and his Kendall’s daughter Louise, played by Holliday Grainger, the closest to a family that he possesses. From there, the the film consists of Philip, Nick and Louise all variously trying to “read” Rachel, and Philip learning to engage in a relationship with a woman after having previously reserved all his affective energy for his homosocial relationship with his cousin, often making it feels as if his cousin is still his main object of attraction, even after his death.
In that sense, My Cousin Rachel often plays as a companion piece to Rebecca, as focused on the homosocial relations between men as that later novel would be focused on the homosocial relations between women. As with the original, Roger Michell’s film seems to take place in the nineteenth century, or in a pocket of the twentieth century that still looks like the nineteenth century – or, better still, within a twenty-first century period drama matrix within which the very notion of periodicity itself typically seems to be couched in nineteenth-century parameters. To that end, Michell shoots the film like a Victorian sensation novel, as languorous and distended atmospheric sequences alternate with abbreviated expository sequences, and moods succeed each other very rapidly and skittishly. That’s enhanced by a billowing, ballooning sense of space, oriented around slightly off-kilter compositions, in which the camera tends to either skirt quite close to the ground or swing up in the air in order to offset any settled or stabilising statelieness. With a slightly hand-held edge to even the most refined and composed of images, the body language on display tends to be just a little more intensified and pronounced than would typically occur in a period drama too, lending a manic substrate to even the quietest scenes.
For the most part, that doesn’t allow for the clear sequestration of classes that you typically tend to see in costume dramas either, as Rachel is housed in a small adjunct to the main mansion on Nick Kendall’s estate, whose dark, drab palettes grow more and more exposed to the palette and ambience of the landscape outside. That’s not to say that the film as a whole is dark, but that the house becomes more vegetal as it proceeds, as Philip and Rachel find themselves intertwined and enmeshed in the rhythm of the working people living on their estate, whose habits filter into their aristocratic mise-en-scenes in unexpected and incongruous ways. If anything, the outdoor sequences tend to be a little too bright, drawing upon the brief opening interlude in Italy to construe the English countryside as exotic and Gothic in much the same way in which nineteenth-century fiction typically imagined Italy, with Rachel acting as a point of transition, alternating between Italian and English mannerisms and dialogue in ways that Philip finds increasingly difficult to properly parse.
The result is an off-kilter atmosphere that gradually condenses around the awry cross-editing and atonal reaction shots that prevent Philip from ever settling into a stable rapport with Rachel, or from being able to conceive of her in any stable way, even or especially after her eventual death. To some extent, that pervasive sense of cross-purposes works to offset the drama with a mild sense of screwball, since, for all his suspicion, Philip’s first disarming impression of Rachel is that she’s actually quite funny. After a while, though, that screwy substrate subsides into a more emergent and uncanny brand of naturalism, as Philip and Rachel start to embark upon a more serious romantic relationship. For the most part, their most impassionated moments together occur during the expansive outdoor scenes, but even these are somewhat offset by the soaring, distorted drone shots that exaggerate the curvature of the earth’s surface until the couple’s unity has no discernible horizon to work towards. In these scenes, which nearly always take place at the juncture of land and sea so characteristic of the area of Cornwall where the action takes place, the very ground of cinematic period drama liquefies and gives way, much as Du Maurier’s own novel inhabits nineteenth-century fiction tropes more than offering an earnest effort to recapitulate them.
In the same way, Rachel, at least as she is presented in the film, inhabits and plays with nineteenth-century gender norms, rather than subscribing to them in any stable or orienting manner. From that opening scenes, Philip plays as a kind of experiment in social conditioning, since in the absence of a mother, a father, or siblings, he has both been exempted from the family structure as a way of shaping gender expectations, but has also been forced to draw what he can from society around him, and over-identify with convrntion in the absence of a parental figure. While he may have done his best, and over-invested in his homosocial relation with his beloved cousin, who stood for father, mother, brother and even lover in one, he has virtually no experience with women outside of his guardian’s daughter, who plays more as a placeholder than as a serious prospect for either sister or wife. In that context, Rachel represent a kind of post-homosocial afterlife toi Philip’s rapport with his cousin, a vision of the kind of normative social relationship that would have been prescribed to succeed his intial attachment to Ambrose, even if Ambrose hadn’t happened to have passed away in the very process of making that transition himself.
While Philip’s rage may, superficially, have been directed at Rachel for her suspect poisoning of Ambrose, it thus comes to feel as if the act of marrying Ambrose and forcing him into a rapport that takes precedence over his homosocial rapport with Philip, has been Rachel’s real crime. Try as he might to scrutinise Rachel, then, no single act or omission of hers can quite articulate or satiate Philip’s uneasiness, especially because his conception of women, with so little experience, is entirely fantastic. Much of the power of the film is that we never see anything of Rachel outside of this fantasy role, since while she may elasticise, elude and evade it, she never quite departs from it, or at least never departs categorically enough for the fantasy to persist without her, or to attach itself to another feminine love interest. Not quite availed of his fantasy of heterosexual coupledom, but not quite able to transfer his fantasy either, the more fascinated that Philip becomes with Rachel, the more her presence seems to reiterate his connection to his cousin, lending their first sexual encounter – and his first ever sexual encounter – an intensely homoerotic valency that, in the absence of his cousin, is immediately translated into a homoerotically autoeroticism that sees Philip stripping off his clothes to wander across the estate in order to commune with the vistas he shared with his cousin as they shape, caress and envelop his naked torso.
What ensues is possibly the most stunning sequence in the film, as he returns to find Rachel absent, only for her sudden reappearance to prevent that absence ramifying as a direct absence of fantasy as well. Even in her absence, Rachel remains present as fantasy, but even when she is present, her fantastic overtones don’t quite resonate as they are supposed to as well, leaving Philip in a limbo that becomes more atonal and difficult to parse as these last few scenes proceed. In a brilliant sequel to their first sexual encounter, Philip and Rachel now make love in the woods, but the vivid presence of her body prevents him retreating to his autoerotic distance, instead forcing him to notice how subliminally her body changes to becomes ever so slightly less accommodating, and ever so slightly more functional and administrative in her orientation towards his pleasure. Whether or not she starts to poison him in the final act, then, becomes as irrelevant as whether or not she poisoned his cousin, since the drama is driven by how insidiously, invisibly, and perhaps inadvertently she poisons his fantasy of what womanhood entails, along with the extent to which womanhood can both protect him from and consummate his rapport with his loved cousin.
The film doesn’t conclude, then, with Rachel revealing her “deceptive” side in a cathartic or climactic way, so much as gradually subsiding from view as a point against which Philip can define deception, and manage his own self-deception, in the first place. While suspicion may initially constellate around her relationship with an Italian lawyer who has moved to town, this proves to have much more disturbing consequences than a romantic relationship, or a financial relationship, would entail. Instead, it turns out that Rachel and her lawyer are just friends, but that their very capacity to genuinely conceive of themselves in terms of friendship stems from his homosexuality. If Rachel initially seems suspicious because she has no financial agenda, and then becomes more suspicious because she seems determined to manage her finances without regard to conventional gender relations, that financial mistrust is now subsumed into – or identified with – an alliance that both appears to structure all her other affective relationships, since she knew this lawyer before marrying Ambrose, but that is also completely exempt from the rules that govern those relationships as well. Glimpsing her with this lawyer, then, becomes worse for Philip than witnessing infidelity, since it presents him with the very homoerotic attachment to his cousin that her presence is meant to both consummate and disavow, to the point where the lawyer almost plays a traumatically homoeroticised ghost of Ambrose, still haunting Philip with his desire.
It’s at this point that Rachel’s dissonance becomes most unbearable, since while she may not quite assuage Philip’s homoerotic desires in her presence, her absence doesn’t assuage them any more successively either, creating an odd situation in which his inchoate passion for her and his inchoate passion for his cousin come to feel like the same thing. As these last scenes play out, then, Rachel’s bridal veil becomes more prominent in occluding her face, but also more prominent in the proliferation of gauzy textures and surfaces that collapse foreground and background in Michell’s own mise-en-scene, as if to both identify us with and conceal Rachel’s gaze as organising point of desire in the manner that renders Philip so debilitated. No surprise, then, that Rachel’s death just makes her resonate all the more dramatically, nor that Philip’s fixation on Ambrose returns even more emphatically after she passes way, resulting in an off-kiler epilogue focusing on his new family some years later, in which the image of his wife and children is so unsettled, and so suffused with the strange sight-lines of the film as a whole, that they’re almost antagonists – or they’re almost Ambrose, since the powerful import of these last moments is that homosocial attachment will recur in the most unlikely manner, however adamantly it’s repressed. If My Cousin Rachel is a period drama, then, it’s one suffused with mobility and incipient modernity, in which even the mos traditional attachments brim with something that finally exceeds them, and in which romantic convention is inhabited only as a series of tropes to be considered and deconstructed, rather than a model with any genuine claim to realism of naturalism, ina sly dig at the extent to which period drama itself has become conflated with a certain kind of highbrow and revanchist filmic realism in our contemporary twenty-first media world.