Rachel Weisz wields some of the most potentially terrifying cups of tea this side of “Get Out” in the new period piece “My Cousin Rachel,” one of those Daphne du Maurier adaptations that lives on the corner of Jane Austen Avenue and James M. Cain Boulevard.
But a movie that hangs out at that intersection should be more fun; instead, we get intrigue that’s never quite intriguing enough, and tortured romance that plays more like tortured writing. (Director Roger Michell, of “Notting Hill” fame, adapted the novel, which was previously filmed in 1952 as a vehicle for Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton.)
For all the will-changing and bodice-ripping and skulking about, Michell’s take on the material lands in a bland zone better suited for “Masterpiece Theatre” season-filler than for the big screen.
Sam Claflin stars as Philip, who lost his parents at a very young age and was raised by a bachelor cousin, growing up on a beautiful farm near the sea where the only women allowed in the house were of the canine variety. (As with the recent “King Arthur,” the youth-of-the-hero montage — assembled here by editor Kristina Hetherington — makes a vivid early impression to which the rest of the film never quite lives up.)
After Philip finishes college, his benefactor falls ill and is sent off to Florence to recover in the sunshine. He writes that he is spending time with his cousin (and thus also Philip’s cousin) Rachel, whom he eventually marries. Later, a letter arrives implying that Rachel is unduly controlling him; when Philip goes to Italy for answers, he learns that his cousin is dead, and after returning home, he is informed that the mysterious Rachel is coming to visit.
That the title card appears under a clap of thunder promises a level of delicious excess that the film doesn’t deliver, although it does give us Weisz, the kind of actress who can live up to a character who’s discussed by everyone else in the film for almost the entire first act before she finally appears on camera. She is seemingly modest and unobtrusive, but it takes almost no time at all for her to have He-Man Woman-Hater Philip eating out of her hand.
Rachel has an unsigned will leaving her everything; Philip decides to hand over his inheritance to her under the proviso that she would lose it all if she remarried. Then those special cups of tea come out — is he out of his depth? Has she murdered one lover and is now setting sights on another? The answers are somewhat slow to come and not all that satisfying when they do.
Somewhere inside this film there’s an interesting story about 19th century women seeking agency and independence by being landowners, but that gets lost amid the secrecy and subterfuge. Still, Michell and casting director Fiona Weir (“Brooklyn”) have loaded the ensemble with vivid performers (and perfectly lived-in faces for the supporting players). Claflin is just right for Philip; he’s strapping (the film gets him shirtless on multiple occasions to remind us of that fact), but with a soft enough edge that we believe how easily he can become a cunning woman’s prey.
As always, Holliday Grainger, as the neighbor girl who loves Philip from over the fence, makes a definite impression. Even in secondary roles in movies as forgettable as this or the Coast Guard epic “The Finest Hours,” Grainger’s the sort of actress who inspires audiences to make it a point to learn her name.
Cinematographer Mike Eley gets the mood right, capturing the different qualities of light in a stately manor or a more run-down one, and using shadow (and a strategically-placed veil) to keep Rachel’s intentions a mystery. (Too bad the torrential rain glimpsed through windows is so incredibly fakey; it looks like they sent the set through a car wash.)
Weisz and Claflin make a memorable couple, but it’s too bad their chemistry is wasted on such a wan drama. A little less taste and a little more oomph might have made all the difference.