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'My Cousin Rachel': Relatively Mysterious

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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I kept thinking, "It can't be that ... it's too obvious." Thus were my incredulous musings while trying to figure if Rachel Weisz's title character in director Roger Michell's "My Cousin Rachel" was the husband-murderer her newest suitor initially thought she was. You see, I'm terrible at unraveling mysteries. I've been trying to solve the meaning of life for decades, and still nothing.

So I had to question my suspicion, which in turn became the main reason why this otherwise average motion picture held my interest. That said, Weisz sure can sow the doubt.

Granted, it's possible that, like Sam Claflin's 24-year- old Philip, the wealthy beneficiary of his guardian-cousin's sprawling, English estate, I was bewitched by the young widow's shadowy charms. If there were an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a just so-so movie, Weisz would be a shoo-in. I can only hope, for her real-life husband, Daniel Craig's sake, that her portrayal is entirely the product of thespic acumen, and in no way conjured from traits within her. Rachel Ashley can beguile you and prove her innocence with the same look.

Problem is, while the good-natured souls among us don't want to see anyone taken advantage of or compromised by a suspected vamp of such profound talents, Philip is an uninteresting dolt. He originally bellows that he will hold Rachel to account for his guardian-cousin's untimely death.

But when the seductress who, strangely enough, wasn't left a farthing by Philip's benefactor, shows up in her widow's weeds, he proceeds to give her the store. We throw up our hands. What an idiot! Of course none of us ever did anything so injudicious in the name of love.

The film can do that to you. The screenplay, adapted by Michell from Daphne du Maurier's novel, includes a slew of the author's slyly injected metaphors ... thoughts about the human condition you'll either agree with or disavow. On an objective note, viewers of a literary bent may venture a thought or two about the genre of fiction du Maurier chose to explore our behavior, decorum and proclivities. It's psychological, but not thrilling, and yet insidiously haunting.

As the fable ambles along, full of quaint Briticisms and suffused with a period correct array of mid19th-century folkways and mores, the lost art of double meanings in polite conversation is celebrated. Naturally, we could just follow the money, but half way in we're sure intentions much grander and significant are afoot. In fact, for fear of missing something, one may even put off visiting the concession stand for more Sno-Caps. Again, it just doesn't make sense, a movie this middling keeping you from those nonpareils.

Even more vexing, the tale is snail-paced, albeit ameliorated in part by travelogue-like scenery that makes you want to book not a flight, mind you, but passage to the lushness of yesteryear's English countryside: old stone arches, kidney pie, scones and afternoon tea, old sport.

Complementing that eyeful are the equally evocative interiors…the barns for their rustic purity, the homes for their assortment of stunning future antiques and era-defining appurtenances. Weisz's enigmatic Rachel, striking in black lace, stands out in high relief against these settings.

But of course she did it, didn't she? Yet, seemingly as culpable as our Congress is mousey in the face of crisis, here she is, unfazed, going about her business. Murder? What murder? Russians? What Russians? The difference is, unlike that once august body, her power is in her bewitchery, and not just in her sheer greed. Her fabrications, if that's what they are, decorously emit from encouraging lips, claiming her incorruptibility.

We are abashed and bemused by the whole kit and caboodle; the perplexing wiles, charms and opportunism that attend the mating process.

However, save for a jogged reminiscence we perhaps wish we could retract, we have the luxury of being academic about the entire affair. Poor Philip, on the other hand, doesn't stand a chance.

If it weren't impolite, I'd say that, aside from being unwise in ways of the world, he's not even the smartest pupil in the dummy class. So, while we are put in the position of caring about the tedious fellow only because he is a fellow human being, added to our suspicions, we wonder why du Maurier made the purported victim so feeble. What's the implication?

If nothing else, "My Cousin Rachel" leaves us speculating. Would the character study of Weisz's sinister black widow be as confounding if Philip were her mental match, or is the author determined to posit some dark, fatalistic truth no matter the makeup of the protagonist's admirer?

But moreover for our evaluative purposes here, why am I giving this much thought to a movie I really didn't like?

"My Cousin Rachel," rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release and stars Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin and Holliday Granger. Running time: 106 minutes


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