My Cousin Rachel impressed me more upon a second watch, when I went into it with a fixed view of the ‘truth’ of the central matter – did she, or didn’t she? On my second viewing I went into this film with the perspective that Rachel was innocent of her husband’s murder – she was cunning, quick-witted and manipulative, to be sure, but innocent of the crime she was accused of. Taking this view made the experience of watching the film far more interesting, since My Cousin Rachel encourages the viewer to assume guilt – there are many shots of wisps of smoke rising from suspicious teacups, alarming letters, and confused hallucinations produced by our protagonist’s fevered imagination. By rejecting this reading and instead assuming that Rachel is innocent, this becomes a very different – and, in my view, much more interesting – film.
As I now see it, Rachel is a bold, daring woman who is treated with suspicion and mistrust because she defies societal conventions. She has had multiple husbands. She is said to be promiscuous. She brews peculiar teas that are alien to British tastes. She is half-Italian and has ‘foreign ways’. She is openly defiant of the men surrounding her, and asserts her right to self-determination without fear. None of these traits should be markers of guilt, but they absolutely would have been construed as such by Victorian society.
Since the film is mostly told from the perspective of Philip, the cousin of Rachel who gradually falls under her spell, it is inevitable that the markers of difference attached to Rachel are treated as markers of guilt. Philip himself is a chauvinist – he grew up in a house without women and demonstrates relentless scorn for ‘women’s ways’ prior to meeting Rachel.
While Rachel compares Philip to a puppy and leads him around by the nose for the first two thirds of the film, that isn’t how he remains. As he becomes steadily more enthralled, Philip demonstrates an alarming desire to possess Rachel – he practically pours the family jewels on her lap, and treats the pearl necklace he gives her more like a collar signifying his ownership. When Rachel is alarmed and tries to distance herself from him, Philip shifts from besotted to resentful, renewing his quest to cast light on her evil in earnest. On the second viewing, the relationship between them became that of an abusive, emotionally stifled man and a trapped widow desperately trying to figure out an escape plan.
As a film, My Cousin Rachel is handsomely mounted and characterised by superb performances, particularly from Rachel Weisz. Weisz plays her namesake character with appealing wit and charm, and I arguably fell under her spell, just as Philip did. If she was indeed playing a con, though, I was definitely more gullible.