This solid adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel retains the ambiguity of the original, leaving you guessing right up until the end. Rachel Weisz is perfectly cast as the enigmatic Rachel, the calm centre around which Sam Claflin’s Philip crashes and spins.
Philip, an orphan, has been raised by his beloved cousin Ambrose in a ramshackle but wealthy estate in Cornwall. When Ambrose marries a cousin, Rachel, whilst in Italy, Philip is unimpressed and a little jealous. He receives a letter from Ambrose accusing Rachel of tormenting him and travels to Florence, finding Ambrose dead and Rachel gone. Determined to get his revenge on the woman he is sure is responsible for Ambrose’s death, his resolve wavers when Rachel comes to Cornwall and he is quickly mollified by her charm and humour.
This is where the really interesting story begins. Is Rachel as she seems or is Philip being fooled, as Ambrose was? Like Philip, we get to watch Rachel from the outside, with small moments and actions either overlooked or given undue importance depending on the emotional state of our protagonist. Although I have seen the 1952 George Cukor version of the story, starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, I couldn’t remember the ending and so was as clueless as Philip as to Rachel’s true character.
Weisz has an ability, through expression and mannerisms, to shift from coquettish to worldly to menacing in a single scene and she had me vacillating between belief and suspicion throughout. Claflin does a better job than Burton I think at showing the erratic, self-absorbed impetuousness of youth, particularly privileged youth, and my empathy for him waxed and waned.
What I liked about this retelling was the subtle feminist subtext that reframed Rachel’s character and motivations. It was not overt but for the first time I glimpsed her reality as a woman in the 19th century; powerless without a husband and unable to live a life of her own choosing. Through Philip’s eyes, she is either innocent or seductress but the truth, of course, is not so black and white. She is the first woman he has known, other than his boorishly overlooked and long-suffering childhood friend Louise, and his ignorance of what might constitute a normal relationship and his power as a wealthy man gives him a latitude and potential menace that Rachel can’t help but be vulnerable to.
The production and costume design are lovely, giving an authentic sense of the differences between Philip and Rachel’s worlds. His is all greys and browns and dogs and dirt and hers is black and veiled and subtly exotic. The cinematography is generally unremarkable, in the sense that you don’t notice it, except for some odd phases of unusual framing that perhaps are supposed to show an awkwardness between the protagonists but succeeded mainly in just making me aware of the oddness.
Technically this passes the Bechdel Test – Rachel says a word or two to friend Mary and asks Louise if she wants tea – but it’s a dubious pass and I wouldn’t count either of the interactions as conversations. The era of the novel perhaps excuses the lack of well-formed female characters but I found it dispiriting, nonetheless. The very last frame is an enigmatic one – is that final gaze meant to signify something? Probably not but for a split second it turned my understanding of the story upside down.
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