A family affair

Clueless and mysterious cousins clash in British period drama

Staring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. Directed by Roger Michell. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Clueless and mysterious cousins clash in British period drama M y Cousin Rachel is set in 19th century England, but the ambiguities and complexities of its characters and the odd twists of its story may sometimes seem closer to fiction from 20th century modernism. And that’s not entirely surprising, given that Roger Michell’s film is based on a 1951 period thriller by Daphne du Maurier.

But what’s most striking about this sometimes fascinating, sometimes baffling movie is that, while it comes across decked out in the familiar Masterpiece Theatre-like trappings of romance on a country estate, it repeatedly disrupts the emotional complacencies that might be associated with such an endeavor.

The central characters are cousins of one sort or another. The eponymous Rachel (Rachel Weisz), newly widowed when we first meet her, is the worldly star figure in all this. And the apparent point-of-view character, the one calling Rachel “my cousin,” is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), and he has inherited the property and wealth of Ambrose Ashley, the recently deceased cousin and best friend who was also Rachel’s husband.

Rachel is a tantalizing mystery for all involved, but Philip, who is an unwitting mystery to himself, is every bit as central in the overall picture. He has been raised, we’re told, in an almost exclusively male environment, and he seems, by turns, innocent, ignorant and intrepid when it comes to any kind of adult relationship, and especially so with women.

Philip’s most substantial relationship has been with Ambrose, his virtual “twin,” until the latter’s marriage to Rachel separates them. When Rachel returns to her late husband’s property, Philip has already begun settling in to his own version of Ambrose’s lifestyle. Rachel is not unwelcome in his new domain, but their attitudes and sympathies toward one another go through multiple phases of suspicion, passion, doubt, reckless impulse, etc.

Potentially, there’s plenty of psychological subtext in their evolving relationship, but the film never fully gives itself over into any conclusive kind of psychodrama. Instead, those psychological peculiarities get absorbed into the film’s hit-and-miss parade of haunted, unresolved questions—of which there are many in a tale with glancing hints of incest, lost letters, poisoned drinks, altered last testaments, conspiracy and foreign entanglements, even murder.

Weisz’s understated performance in the title role gives real weight and credibility to the film’s sense of moral and emotional ambiguity. Claflin is especially good with his character’s cocksure cluelessness, but the overall characterization only intermittently comes fully to life. Holliday Grainger shows quiet strength and charm as Louise, the daughter of Philip’s guardian, and the other woman of note in Philip’s life.