My Cousin Rachel. Did she or didn’t she?

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Did she or didn’t she? This is the question posed by the ambiguous ending to Daphne DuMaurier’s 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel (and the 1952 movie) but one that is brought front and centre by this new adaptation. It is the first line spoken and the film painstakingly avoids giving any indication of what the answer might be. In the end the side of the fence you fall on will probably say more about you as an audience member than it does about the film makers. Personally I’m going to say she didn’t because this makes her a more progressive feminist figure and less of a cliche. Ask me another time and I may give you an entirely different response.

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My Cousin Rachel’s story revolves around a young man in late 1800s Cornwall who inherits a large estate from his cousin and guardian. Prior to his benefactor’s death he had received a letter suggesting that the older gentleman’s new wife may have had a hand in his demise and he becomes convinced that this is in fact the case right up until the point that he actually meets her. At this point he is suddenly unable to see things straight and any resolution on her guilt in this respect remains elusive from him and from us.

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Rachel, only his cousin in as much as she was married to his relation, is a confident and educated woman who is not easily subjugated or manipulated. As such she is a strong figure in terms of gender equality both for the time in which the narrative is set and for when it was written. She is most certainly in control of her own life and is not shackled by the patriarchy in the manner of the other women around her. She is undeniably deceitful and operating for her own gain but if she is also a murderer then this makes her a trope which undermines her power as an example for others.

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If Rachel has indeed killed her husband then she becomes a femme fatale which is a construct historically linked with labelling women as immoral seductresses, enchantresses or witches. If the alternative is true though and Rachel has been able to gain supremacy without reliance on base violence then she is by nature a more intelligent and rationale woman. If innocent she is more akin to literary heroes such as Bathsheba Everdeen and Elizabeth Bennet. If guilty she fits in with reductive and destructive screen stereotypes like the vamps of the 50s, the sirens of the 60s and the bunny boilers of the 80s.

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The brilliance of Rachel Weisz’s performance is that she could be any of these things. It is a mannered and precisely observed portrayal and is the best aspect of the film. The rest of the movie isn’t weak but it is serviceable. Sam Claflin and Holliday Grainger are good in support and Iain Glen provides the same stoical benevolence he demonstrates in Game of Thrones but it is Weisz’s film. 

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In the end My Cousin Rachel’s ability to be a conversation starter is its greatest asset and for this it should be celebrated. Immediately after watching it I got into a detailed ten minute discussion with six strangers from the same screening about the protagonist’s past and motivations and I can’t tell you another time when a movie has prompted this. In fact this review is the culmination and final part of that chat so I probably should have directed those nice people toward my blog.

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