In her sly novel My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier offers the female gaze on the male gaze — that is, she tells the story of a possibly murderous femme fatale from the perspective of a spoiled and needy young man. Philip (played in the film by Sam Claflin) is a 24-year-old Englishman, the ward of a rich older cousin named Ambrose who travels to Italy for his health and suddenly marries another, more-distant cousin, Rachel. The tone of Ambrose’s letters home slowly shifts from ecstasy to panic and horror. His wife, he writes, has become his enemy. He’s sick and getting sicker. He’s surrounded by people who want him dead. By the time Philip arrives in Italy, his beloved Ambrose has indeed perished, allegedly from a brain tumor, and Rachel has left town. Arriving back home to the estate that will soon be his, Philip learns that Rachel is on her way. He steels himself for a demoness. And then Rachel (Rachel Weisz) appears, and he is almost instantly smitten.
Directed by Roger Michell in his customary clean, borderline clinical style, My Cousin Rachel tells an overfamiliar story with odd dissonances. You don’t know if you’re watching something very, very obvious or being set up. Philip’s godfather, Kendall (Iain Glen), warns him about Rachel’s checkered past. Kendall’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) — a more obviously suitable mate for Philip — winces at his intemperateness. Rachel, meanwhile, makes a special herbal tea that she insists Philip drink, after which he feels strangely weak. The portents aren’t subtle.
Weisz is riveting. Quick, vivacious, disarmingly informal, this Rachel is certainly not using stereotypically feminine wiles. She’s chummy with Philip but not flirty. She wears modest black outfits, as befits her mourning. And she asks for no money. But she finds herself showered with it, more and more as Philip’s ardor grows. Because Weisz is one of the least artificial actresses alive, you find yourself constantly asking: She can’t be as evil as the movie is suggesting, can she?
From the start, Claflin makes Philip so foolish and unstable that it’s difficult to get too invested in his fate. But My Cousin Rachel is a fascinating hybrid. It uses clunky devices out of a 19th-century melodrama, but its subject is modern: mistakes of perception and of metaphor. It’s about the myopia of the male gaze.
*This article appears in the June 12, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.