The trailer for “My Cousin Rachel” presents a twisted psychological thriller crossed with a steamy period romance, complete with promising performances by Rachel Weisz (“Denial”) and Sam Claflin (“Me Before You”). For a lover of period romance films, “My Cousin Rachel” seems at first to be unique and intriguing in its suspense and mystery. However, the film in its entirety effectively demonstrates the misleading power of a well-edited trailer.
The film begins with the backstory of protagonist Philip (Claflin), who was taken at an early age by his cousin-turned-father-figure Ambrose (also Claflin) and raised on a large estate. Close to Philip’s 25th birthday, Ambrose travels to Italy where he falls in love with and marries their mutual cousin Rachel (Weisz). Alarmingly, Philip soon begins to receive cryptic letters from Ambrose detailing the ways in which Rachel is tormenting him; Philip goes to Italy immediately but learns that Ambrose has died. This all happens within the first 10 minutes of the film, setting the precedent that Rachel is malicious and manipulative. Philip develops an acute hatred for Rachel, and when she travels back to the estate to mourn Ambrose, the two fatefully meet.
The following plot involves Philip becoming increasingly infatuated with the gorgeous Rachel and her feminine charms. The opening of the film works as a subtle but constant reminder to the viewer that Rachel is perhaps not as innocent as she appears. However, while it is compelling at first to try to look for clues that indicate Rachel’s ulterior motive in her relationship with Philip, the film becomes frustratingly predictable and Rachel’s manipulation becomes glaringly obvious. The root of this predictability lies in Claflin’s overwhelming transparency; there is absolutely no subtlety to his character, and he thinks and acts in ways that are simultaneously stupid, self-destructive and inevitable. Claflin’s character exemplifies the ability of men to be easily manipulated by the slightest hint of sexuality. Philip goes so far as to relinquish control of his entire estate to Rachel after a few kisses and lingering glances. The lack of character depth, partly due to Claflin’s mediocre acting as well as a massive flaw in the story, ultimately disrupts the intrigue of the narrative and causes the film to become superficial and annoying in its predictability.
Furthermore, the film would have been far more captivating if told from Rachel’s perspective. Through Philip’s eyes, Rachel is merely a prize to be won by his mother’s pearls. But regardless, the film hints at the female experience in the late millennia, in which women had no autonomy, no power of ownership and were completely dependent on men for money and security. The only weapon in Rachel’s arsenal is her sexuality, and she wields it calculatingly. The film also touches on the centuries-old trope of women with an intimate knowledge of herbs and their powers. Rachel makes Philip her “special brew,” which is clearly poison, further emphasizing the ability of women to find power in the tools available to them while still acting within the confines of their gender. With Rachel’s perspective, an exploration of the sociopolitical landscape of the time as a deeper explanation for her actions would have provided depth and complexity to the narrative. But with Philip as the protagonist, the film remains a one-dimensional and patriarchal spotlight on one man’s overwhelming stupidity.