The writings of Daphne Du Maurier were often moody tales of deception, betrayal, paranoia, and occasionally romance; qualities that made them favorites of Alfred Hitchcock and inspired his films "Rebecca," "Jamaica Inn," and "The Birds." Du Maurier's gothic-tinged "My Cousin Rachel" is perhaps slightly lesser known among her works, though it was previously adapted into a movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton in 1952 (just a year after the story's publication). It now inspires a gripping and handsomely mounted screen adaptation from writer-director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill," "Le Weekend").
The orphaned Philip (Sam Claflin) is raised from childhood by his wealthy cousin and guardian, Ambrose, at his sprawling Cornwall estate. When the lifelong bachelor falls ill and travels to the warmer climate of Florence on the advice of his doctors, it's a bit of a shock when he writes to Philip of his unexpected marriage to a distant, half-Italian cousin named Rachel (Rachel Weisz). But not long after the wedding, Ambrose's letters take a drastic turn, calling Rachel "his torment" and begging Philip to come to his aid.
Philip's godfather (Iain Glen) believes a brain tumor may be responsible for Ambrose's sudden decline, but Philip takes the letters at their word. Making his way to Italy to get answers, Philip instead finds that his cousin has died and Rachel is nowhere to be found. Convinced that the mysterious Rachel is responsible for the death of his beloved Ambrose, Philip vows revenge.
Returning to Cornwall, Philip gets word that Rachel is coming to visit, and the young man prepares for a showdown. However, when Rachel finally does arrive, he's ill-prepared for her disarming presence: his anger and suspicion rapidly turn to an infatuation bordering on obsession. He's soon declaring his love for Rachel and -- over the objections of the family lawyer (Simon Russell Beale) and his smitten childhood friend Louise (Holliday Grainger) -- making plans to sign over the fortune he gains access to once he turns 25.
Best known as the dashing Finnick O'Dair in the "Hunger Games" franchise, Claflin gets an opportunity to show his range, playing Philip as almost puppy-like in his single-mindedness. Petulant and mercurial, he's prone to tantrums when he doesn't get his way.
But it's Weisz who dominates the film, which is quite appropriate for a character who's discussed for nearly the entire first act before she ever appears on screen. The central mystery, whether Rachel is a conniving femme fatale or simply a widow in mourning, gives the actress space to deliver a superb, deliberately opaque performance that allows us (as well as the film's characters) to see what exactly we wish in Rachel's behavior.
A remarkably modern, independent-minded woman, Rachel bristles under the men who seek to control her, which naturally makes everyone around her distrustful, to say the least. And Michell puts us right in their shoes, questioning her motives and making us increasingly leery of the special, meticulously-prepared teas she's constantly offering her guests. She fits right in to Mike Eley's shadowy cinematography and the decaying, dimly-lit rooms created by production designer Alice Normington.
Some of the film's suspense dissipates at the story goes on, and it never quite reaches the darker, more dangerous depths it seems to be tiptoeing toward, but its ambiguity and rich atmosphere nevertheless make for a deliciously compelling drama.