This latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame, yet as a mid-19th century period piece set on the Cornish coast, it is a sharp departure from that classic romantic comedy. The audience is immediately thrown into the world of Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), growing up in a rural idyll with his cousin Ambrose. The flecks of Hardy that are scattered through the film begin here, with sprawling shots of the pastoral landscape. This is set to an opulent score from Rael Jones, replete with sensational strings and woodwinds as well as menacing piano riffs.
Ambrose soon falls ill and has to leave Philip and England for Italy, where it is hoped the sun will help nurse him back to health. It is thus supremely ironic that Ambrose dies in Florence, after he has encountered and subsequently married his eponymous cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz). This union and Ambrose’s illness are relayed back to Philip through a series of increasingly frenetic letters that culminate in a desperate plea for help. Philip goes to Florence but it inevitably too late; Ambrose has supposedly dies of a brain tumour, but Philip suspects foul play.
The film revolves around the unresolved question this initial fatality poses: were Ambrose’s insinuating letters due to hallucinations provoked by a tumour, or did Rachel contrive to poison him? The ambiguous atmosphere only intensifies once Rachel takes up residence on Philip’s estate in England; despite the proximity her motives become impossible to discern as Philip oscillates between trust and doubt just as the audience does.
The symbolism of Italy as the fiery passion of the soul that England suppresses, only to be released abroad, is reminiscent of Forster’s novels and is powerfully conveyed through the contrast between the two. The sumptuous scenes in Florence burst from the screen. The rich orange of the Duomo sharply contrasts the humble verdant English scenes. The cinematography alternates between the expansive coastal vistas as laymen scythe and the brooding darkened indoors scenes on the estate.
Michell’s introduces Rachel once the film is well underway in a splendid scene. Weisz’s silhouette is clad in mourning black, framed by an expansive bay window where the moon hangs high behind her. In that moment Weisz is the femme fatale epitomised. Yet, this is immediately subverted once she turns and is so startled she nearly drops her teacup and saucer, objects which become a motif for her obscure morality. Philip is spellbound. He becomes a man possessed; he ignores all surrounding advice and common sense in his hellish pursuit of this enigmatic woman, whose age and treatment of him tinges the plot with Oedipal connotations.
His rapture is understandable: Weisz’s performance is a tour de force. Her portrayal of this morally vague character is enchanting, defined by her inscrutable gaze which seems good one moment and sinister the next. Michell’s camera focuses in on the faces of the protagonists, revealing every minute twitch of emotion that flashes across their features. The unsettling nature of this scrutiny is compounded by the loaded silences that punctuate the dialogue, leaving the audience jarred, unsettled, and acutely conscious of the erotic tension between the characters. The audience sees Rachel as Philip does; alluring and feminine, but impenetrable.
The most intimate scene between the two is also the most revealing, where Philip and Rachel sleep together in the depths of the woods. While Philip is in the throes of ecstasy, the camera trains in on Rachel’s face; she looks skywards with disturbing distraction. Weisz’s expression is once again indecipherable. It could be an expression of ennui, yet it could equally be one of calculation. They finally dress and wander off, leaving a patch of crushed bluebells amid the standing beauties; they seem to be mimetic of the havoc Rachel wreaks on Philip’s life, regardless of whether or not she intended to.