My Cousin Rachel

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“Who’s to blame?” asks Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) at the beginning of My Cousin Rachel (dir. Roger Michell, 2017). His guardian and father figure Ambrose Ashley has died, abroad in Italy, shortly after taking a wife. Philip already suspects Rachel Sangalletti Ashley (Rachel Weisz) of her husband’s murder, but that’s not quite what he’s asking. While the direct cause of Ambrose’s death remains ambiguous, to the other characters as well as to the audience, that’s almost beside the point. The point is responsibility more broadly, and how much of that can be placed at the feet of Cousin Rachel.

The majority of My Cousin Rachel takes place not in his resting place in Italy, but in the Cornish country estate now left to Philip. It’s familiar territory for writer Daphne du Maurier, turning up in many of her works from the infamous Manderley of Rebecca, to Navron in Frenchman’s Creek, to the quasi-autobiographical Menabilly in The King’s General. The real-life Menabilly estate was du Maurier’s own home from 1943, and she had been living there for eight years when My Cousin Rachel was published. The Cornish landscape often stands in contrast to the tangled relationships and emotions of du Maurier’s central characters, and in Roger Michell’s adaptation it looms large in the form of wooded groves and clifftop paths, as well as the imposing profile of the house itself. The setting here is striking for its own sake, but also as a symbol of that simplicity that the characters seek but can never achieve: not just beautiful, but open, free, and lasting.

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It is in the middle of this landscape that Philip begins to find himself falling for the mysterious and engaging Rachel, failing to realise that not everyone is as open and easy to understand as he has been used to. In the hands of another director, at another time, this might have been handled very differently: the 1952 adaptation by Henry Koster focused far more heavily on the perspective of Philip (Richard Burton), leaving Rachel (Olivia de Havilland) comparatively inscrutable. Here, Roger Michell invites us to have sympathy not only for Philip’s naivete, but also for Rachel’s wish for independence: financial, emotional, and bodily. There may be no clear date in which My Cousin Rachel – either the film adaptations or the original 1951 book – is set, but the conversation about personal freedom is far more pronounced, and sympathetic to both characters, than it was on screen sixty-five years ago. Philip controls the narrative, as he has always been used to doing, by acting as first-person narrator; even the title My Cousin Rachel demonstrates his security in his own position. Apart from anything else, this is how we can tell that his heart is in the right place. But when he signs his estate across to Rachel in the expectation that she will immediately marry him, she asks him, “Did you think you had bought me?” – and no matter how well-meaning he is, the inescapable answer is yes.

All this is far more interesting given that we don’t know – and we never find out – whether Rachel Sangalletti Ashley is a murderer or not. It is possible that all of this is part of her calculation, to take advantage of a young man who is clearly obsessed with her; equally it could be that she is caught by circumstance and expectation in a position from which she cannot escape. In its ambiguity, My Cousin Rachel overlays two very different interpretations of the same events. On the one hand, if Rachel is guilty of the acts of which she stands accused, then our sympathy for the bind that she finds herself in becomes more complicated. Her situation would, after all, be partly her own fault. And on the other hand, if she is innocent, then our doubt has already made us complicit in denouncing her. If Rachel were to turn out to be a blameless victim of circumstance, the disbelief of the audience would only compound the indignity of Philip’s treatment of her.

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Rachel is not du Maurier’s only female character whose strength and sensuality are her most liberating traits, even as they are her downfall. It is difficult here to avoid comparisons with her most famous work, the 1938 novel Rebecca. Rachel, like Rebecca, is a woman of strong passions and magnetic beauty; like Maxim de Winter, Philip Ashley wants to possess her, contain her and reform her even as her stridence and almost masculine sense of her own worth are what draws him to her. Both Rachel and Rebecca own their sexuality – it is for their own benefit, rather than for the men whose names they must take – and they keep their own secrets which neither their suitors nor we as an audience are allowed to know.

It is telling, then, that neither Rachel nor Rebecca can survive their stories. Even the ambiguous causes of their respective deaths are similar, while the conventional, well-intentioned yet deeply possessive men around them arguably deserve more accountability than will ultimately be assigned to them. Michell does not shy away from the destructive nature of Philip’s obsession, nor the effect it will have on his friends and the wider community. Just as Rachel refuses to give up her agency to him, so Michell does not pass the buck for Philip’s actions and decisions to her. Throughout My Cousin Rachel, the constant question is of the assignation of blame, of responsibility. By its end, Philip has grown enough to recognise that perhaps some of it should lie with him.

Fiona Barnett
June 2017

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