You know her. You’ve read about her in books, you’ve seen her in films and TV shows. She is the twist ending. She was the killer the whole time, the one nobody expected. The one everybody did expect.
She is the femme fatale, the fortune hunter who kills the old man and seduces the young man, the sophisticated woman of mysterious origin who knows all the right answers but never gives away her hand. The clues are always there – the servants whisper hints, Murder…dark passions... and the lustful hero learns too late that he should have stayed away from her.
Trailers for My Cousin Rachel set us up for this story. For a thrilling murder mystery and the suspense of wondering whether the hero will escape the clutches of a murderess. But once the haunting music begins unfolding over the English landscape, My Cousin Rachel does not remain a mystery for very long. Rather, this piece of film uses an engrossing love story to pierce the heart of the literary femme fatale archetype.
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, Me Before You) is our narrator – and, he admits right away – possibly an unreliable one. Philip’s world is shattered suddenly when his cousin Ambrose, who raised him, dies mysteriously in Italy after a hasty marriage to a woman named Rachel (Rachel Weisz, The Light Between Oceans). The dark final letters from his cousin leave our hero to question: Did Rachel kill Ambrose? And might she kill Philip, too?
As she travels to England, Philip prepares to expose and destroy Rachel. Until that is, he actually meets her. She is strange yet comforting, world-worn and strong of mind, yet somehow fragile and delicate. Even the dogs follow her around the house. Weisz’s husky voice and real-life Italian heritage lend a darkness and mystery to Rachel. Her explosive, layered performance brings her character to life before our very eyes.
Philip hardly even tries to keep himself from falling in love, and it was all too apparent to me that this infatuation wouldn’t end happily. He is fresh out of boyhood, encountering a grown woman for the first time. But Rachel, now twice a widow, has known great pain, great sacrifice, many secrets, and has mature tastes and her own opinions. Left again without financial recourse (as Ambrose leaves everything to Philip in his will) Rachel struggles to navigate her own desires in a world so suspicious of her, and so ready to ease her back into the clutches of yet another man who may decide her fate.
For filmgoers who are riveted by a strong period piece, emotionally charged drama and an agonizing yet absorbing romance, director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson) has made a chilling and strong work of cinema. Each touch, whether it’s a string of pearls scattering down the stairs or a woman lighting a room full of candles one by one, is striking and specific.
But among My Cousin Rachel’s most moving elements was was the film’s audacious hint that a complicated woman might not be the villain, simply because she is complicated. She might desire money without being a gold-digger. She might kiss you with no intention to marry you.
The film’s depiction of male obsession also felt deeply poignant to me. Philip finds he can never truly grasp, never truly own Rachel, despite the care they have for one another. And his wrath at her unattainability is skin-crawling; he vacillates between generosity and contempt, between love and hatred – sometimes at a moment’s notice. He doesn’t listen well or love well, even as he tries to do right by himself and others.
Again, we see a trope here of male obsession – although interestingly, male characters are often admired for these qualities and dark urges. They are Heathcliffs and Rhett Butlers, fascinating and powerful even in their flaws.
Of course, this matters because I see this “story” in real life. Too often, women experience generosity from a man when he wants something, but viciousness if he doesn’t get it. Boys are raised to so revere their own power and masculinity, that they lash out when they lose to girls at games or tests. This rage, left unchecked, is the root of domestic violence, date rape, and worse.
It’s up to you to watch and decipher whether or not Rachel “did it.” But by the end of My Cousin Rachel, I saw no murder mystery. I saw a woman who, like me, is cautious and private. A woman who accepts help from others but in the end, relies on nobody but herself. I saw a young man who lashes out in fear because he was never taught to revere the complex woman.
Men like Philip are the inevitable products of an unequal society, as is the tired trope of the femme fatale. Both men and women suffer terrible plights in this kind of world. My Cousin Rachel isn’t afraid to show us that darkness.