“My Cousin Rachel” swirls around a deliciously twisty premise: On a sprawling Cornwall estate in the 19th century, a young heir-to-be, Philip Ashley, discovers that his beloved guardian, Ambrose, has died mysteriously while taking the healing sun in Italy.
Philip immediately suspects foul play at the hands of the woman Ambrose married during his sojourn, a distant cousin named Rachel, and determines to take revenge — a plot slightly complicated by the fact that, when she unexpectedly fetches up in England, he falls hopelessly in love with her.
The setup is so irresistible that it has been done before: Back in the 1950s, Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland played Philip and Rachel in a production that is memorable mostly for its windswept atmosphere and Burton’s U.S. debut. In this iteration of “My Cousin Rachel,” Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz do their best to ignite sparks that are alternately hostile, seductive, calculating and deceptive.
They succeed only fitfully, with Claflin’s winky-blinky jitters no match for Weisz’s far more layered slow burn. There are more than a few moments of genuine mystery and erotic charge between them, but they seem to dissipate in a production that loosens and flutters just when it should be tightening the screws.
Written and directed by Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Le Week-End”), “My Cousin Rachel” is being marketed with an emphasis on its provenance: It’s based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, author of “The Birds” and “Rebecca,” as the movie’s promotional materials eagerly point out. But unlike Alfred Hitchcock, who leaned into the stylized overstatement of those stories’ theatrically Gothic contours, Michell applies his customary restraint and good taste — usually a boon, but in this case misplaced.
“My Cousin Rachel” looks terrific, its rural farm scenes evoking a rustic lyricism, and Michell has provided generous opportunities for some lively performances from a superb supporting ensemble. As the manipulations and tragic misunderstandings eventually kick into gear, the heretofore inert “My Cousin Rachel” exerts a force every bit as seductive and disquieting as the title character, who can be coyly enigmatic one moment and disarmingly forthright the next.
But what’s missing from this production is the darkness — the perversity, even — that informs du Maurier’s work and that would elevate an attractively illustrated story into aesthetically and psychologically vivid cinema. Aside from pointing up a few homoerotic double entrendres regarding Philip’s relationship with Ambrose, Michell plays it safe and on-the-surface.
“My Cousin Rachel” is a pretty film, but it’s not a necessary one; diverting but ultimately a little bit dull. It wants to break free and roam the headlands, but it’s trapped in a flawlessly well-appointed parlor.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Studio 28, Tivoli, Town Center.)
‘My Cousin Rachel’
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language.