My Cousin Rachel (2017) review: Weisz impresses in Du Maurier’s classic ‘Did she or didn’t she?’

Film

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Director:  Roger Michell Writers:  Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Roger Michell (adaptation) Starring: Rachel WeiszSam ClaflinHolliday Grainger

Synopsis: “The story of a young Englishman, Philip (Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, Rachel (Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.”

The director of Notting Hill brings us this fresh take on Daphne Du Maurier’s dark thriller My Cousin Rachel. The book had previously been brought to life in 1952, just a year after the publication of the source novel, in a lavish affair starring Richard Burton and Olivia De Havilland which, while not quite reaching the heights of fame of other Du Maurier adaptations Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, was considered a cinematic success and was nominated for 4 academy awards. To attempt another adaptation could be seen as a bold move, but Michell and team do bring a breath of fresh air to the story.

The story itself is not so much of a whodunnit, but rather a ‘did she do it?’ as we take Philip’s perspective in attempting to unravel the true story of his guardian’s death.

During the early scenes of the film we only hear about the mysterious Rachel through letters and gossip, she comes into Philip’s life not with the bang and confrontation he had been expecting, but with an understated entrance that means our first view of her is silhouetted against the moon, her back to a window. Rather than the monster we are led to expect, Rachel is quiet, funny and warm, with the household’s army of dogs following her about loyally from the moment she arrives.

As Philip’s infatuation grows, Rachel remains a mystery. She seems genuine in her affections for her departed husband Ambrose (the ‘great family resemblance’ is achieved by Claflin playing both roles) but why does she keep plying Philip with that odd herbal tea…?

Weisz plays Rachel with great skill, with Michell seeming to lead our expectations one way as a single glance leads us another. Rachel seems decidedly modern and at odds with the stifling societal expectations exhibited by all those around her. Indeed the fact that she is a woman ‘of appetites’ is whispered knowingly by several of the supporting cast. However Weisz ensures Rachel flits between being charming and likeable then cold and standoffish, just enough to keep us asking ourselves if she could really be capable of murder.

Claflin plays Philip every inch as the ‘wet-nosed- puppy’ Rachel describes him, which does become grating at times. Seeing the world through Philip’s eyes is a somewhat disarming and claustrophobic experience, with the view sometimes becoming as blank and shallow as he seems.

Philip’s lack of experience with women is referenced several times, and indeed the view of Rachel we are given is one buried beneath his own misunderstanding and confusion, alongside a burning attraction and fascination. The whole film could be seen as a giant metaphor for modern cinema, as we struggle along with an old-fashioned male gaze trying to depict highly complex modern womanhood.

While the longing glances and candlelit encounters increase, the orchestral score swells, keeping true to the genre. Other melodramatic tropes abound, from the waves crashing on the shore to the string of pearls breaking and scattering down the stairs.

The film may seem a little slow for some tastes, but the many threads of the story are drawn together in a deft web for the final act. Audiences have been discussing their view of Rachel for over 50 years, and this won’t change that, but ultimately My Cousin Rachel is a well-made period melodrama with an interesting modern twist.

7 out of 10

 

 

 

Lady Macbeth (2017) review: Macabre melodrama

Film

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Director:  William Oldroyd Writers: Nikolai Leskov (based on the novel by), Alice Birch (screenplay)Starring: Florence Pugh, Naomi AckieChristopher FairbankCosmo Jarvis

Synopsis: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.”

Oldroyd establishes early on that this will not be a run-of-the-mill costume drama, but rather a melodrama that will play with viewer expectations at every turn.

We first see Katherine (Florence Pugh) on her wedding day; a simple shot of her demure face under a veil, turning coquettishly towards the camera. The next scene finds Katherine on her wedding night, her Grinch of a husband barking at her to remove her night-gown only for him to glance at her naked body before he gets into bed and falls asleep.

There is no romance here.

For the first half hour Lady Macbeth feels like a study of boredom, as we are exposed to the same dull, quiet rooms as Katherine, with just a ticking clock marking the passage of time in the cold northern home she now inhabits, virtually alone, as her husband and father-in-law have departed for undisclosed locations. Motes of dust become dazzling points of light, otherwise the screen is still and bereft of interest, bar Florence Pugh’s captivating face.

Katherine’s sole companion in the manor is her lady-in-waiting Anna (Naomi Ackie) who helps her dress, brushes her hair and serves her dinner with increasing levels of aggression, (the reasons for which become abundantly clear).

A turning point in the story of solitude comes when Katherine wanders to the outhouses out of boredom one day to find Anna being held hostage, naked, by some of the workers. She demands she is released and bad-boy groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) is introduced to the story.

After a distinctly problematic courtship (Straw Dogs, anyone?) a relationship between the pair unfolds and it becomes apparent that Katherine is not the usual costume-drama heroine. As her behaviour descends into the unpleasant, then the horrific, any audience sympathy for Katherine dissipates and  Lady Macbeth begins to feel like an odd combination of Wuthering Heights and 2011 horror film The Woman; an exploration of the natural, primal and animalistic versus the urbane, civilised and constrained.

Katherine’s choices are made out of boredom, as a way of raging against her captivity, and Pugh’s performance is every inch the caged tiger.

There are some bold directorial choices made, with the camera often avoiding some of the more disturbing action, remaining static as if keeping it’s gaze demurely averted.

The soundtrack is as sparse and unnerving as the visuals, with long passages of almost complete silence, often punctuated only by the naturalistic soundtrack of the wind whistling around the house, or the aforementioned clock ticking.

Lady Macbeth is both a bold directorial debut for Oldroyd and also a showcase of the significant talent of Florence Pugh,  but the dark tale certainly won’t be for everyone.

7 out of 10