My Cousin Rachel is one of du Maurier’s most psychologically sophisticated works. It really taps into all the discomforts of the mind, into our deepest emotions of love and death and their accompanying fears.
Steeped in a wonderfully powerful atmosphere of desire and suspicion, My Cousin Rachel tells the story of a rather naive young bachelor struggling to determine if his deceased guardian’s charming widow is either the woman of his dreams… or a cold-blooded killer and inheritance-chasing gold-digger.
Key to South African-born director Roger Michell’s adaptation is his decision to fully embrace the novel’s thrilling ambiguity, the spell of which du Maurier never breaks. The story is the search for the truth, a search that delightfully torments the reader, torments Philip … and still continues to haunt the film’s final moments.
My Cousin Rachel was written in 1951 by Daphne du Maurier, whose outstanding work often combines suspense, passion and shockingly modern psychological portraits of men and women in intriguing and sometimes obsessive relationships. So cinematic was her writing that Alfred Hitchcock made films from three of her novels: JAMAICA INN, THE BIRDS and REBECCA. Nicolas Roeg’s psychological horror masterpiece DON’T LOOK NOW is also based on a story by du Maurier.
On publication My Cousin Rachel instantly became one of du Maurier’s most popular books and 20th Century Fox snapped up the film rights, going straight into production with two of the hottest stars of the day, Richard Burton and Olivia De Havilland. Released in 1952 the film garnered four Oscar® nominations and a Golden Globe Award for the young Burton as “New Star of the Year.”
“I think if you absolutely know one way or the other what Rachel has done, the story doesn’t work,” says Michell. “It’s exciting to make a film where part of the fun is knowing that people will leave the theatre debating… did she or didn’t she? I hope people love the mystery of that as much as I do. And I hope they enjoy going on a rollercoaster-ride with a this ill-matched couple who are thrown into a kind of emotional washing machine and find themselves churned about as they try to puzzle out each other’s motives, assumptions, values, each other’s sense of truth.”
“I think for Philip, Rachel feels like she comes from another world. And in a way, she really does. She’s from a distant and exotic country. Her language, her clothes, her appetites, her understanding of the world are utterly foreign to him. She’s beautiful, articulate, fun, and completely disrespectful of stuffy contemporary convention. The book is set in the 19th Century, but written in 1950. So I think of it as a kind of post-Freudian version of Jane Austen, if you will. On one level it’s a period thriller about falling in love and family estates and so on, but on another, it’s conversation about sexuality, about women’s freedom in a man’s world, about issues of women’s power. I wanted Rachel to feel in part like a woman from 2017 who parachuted into that world … the woman who fell to earth”
Michell’s long-time producing partner Kevin Loader was impressed by the way the writer-director sprinkled seeds of doubt throughout the screenplay and used them to explore the gulf between romantic dreams and the realities of how power, money and social rules are tied up in relationships.
“The idea of the ‘mysterious outsider’ is so universally resonant, and a great narrative hook on which to build a film,” Loader notes. “What emerged from Roger’s adaptation is a taut psychological thriller that’s full of observations on the nature of romantic love, infatuation and sexual relations between men and women, especially in closed societies. And it leads to a climactic moment, shrouded in ambiguity as to who is culpable and who is not.”
Loader was also struck by how completely contemporary Rachel seemed in Michell’s adaptation, chafing against the constrictions of 19th century English manners. “Rachel is a very modern woman stuck in a rather antiquated, provincial world. I think part of the reason Philip and others find her so difficult to comprehend is because she’s not like anyone they’ve met before,” says Loader. “She’s headstrong, she plays her cards quite close to her chest and she takes pleasure in her own sexuality. All of these were quite shocking ideas for 1839. I think that tension is something Daphne du Maurier was thinking about in the 1950s and that’s why it’s just as resonant now.”
Before taking the leap, it was vital to both Michell and Loader to get the blessing of Daphne du Maurier’s estate, and they were gratified to find her family highly enthusiastic about this particular adaptation.
Grace Browning, du Maurier’s granddaughter, says: “Roger is a well-respected filmmaker, and the fact that he was adapting the book himself was interesting to me. When I found out Rachel Weisz was attached, I felt she couldn’t be more right for this part. She brings such truthfulness to all the characters she’s ever played. Du Maurier was brilliant at writing women characters; there’s such depth to all of them, and I think any actress would relish the chance to play one.”
“Rachel (Weisz) was able to bring a haunting quality to the story, which is really the key to the whole film. You just don’t ever know for certain whether the character of Cousin Rachel is guilty or not. Rachel (Weisz) carries that off brilliantly. In one moment she’s charming, and in the next she’s furious but still seems as if she is hiding something. Every one of those moments is played with conviction,” says Michell.
For her part, Weisz remembers that as soon as she finished the script she urgently called Michell to ask him: is she or isn’t she innocent? His answer was galvanizing: “Roger told me he didn’t know and he didn’t want to know for sure. I thought that would be very exciting to explore and it made me really want to do this project,” says Weisz.
To play the part of Philip, Roger Michell was in search of one of a new generation of emotionally complex British actors, someone who could traverse seamlessly from vengefulness to romantic ecstasy to the most doubt-ridden torment. “We watched a lot of films and Sam Claflin just popped out as exceptionally appropriate,” the writer-director remembers. “We asked him to do a couple of screen tests and he was incredibly persuasive. He’s sensitive, he’s smart, but he’s also youthful and vigorous. He’s got the lot.”
For producer Kevin Loader, he brought two conflicting qualities essential for Philip Ashley: “He had to have an almost puppy-like boyishness but also a charming manliness, and Sam has the facility to play both. A husband and a father in real life and a very together young person, he can be very strong and magnetic but he also has a natural boyishness about him. He was just perfect for this innocent and naive young man who knows nothing about women.”
Claflin found the character full of fascination. “I’ve loved playing Philip and entering his very ambiguous world,” he says. “I feel I’ve been pushed and challenged in new ways.”
He especially enjoyed taking Philip through 180-degree shifts in his thinking about Rachel. “Initially, Philip suspects Rachel of foul play, and he comes in with a lot of judgement against her,” notes Claflin. “He’s made his mind up that he despises her before he even meets her. But he’s slowly bewitched by her, due to her mysterious nature, and because she’s different to any of the women that he knows, though he doesn’t know many women at all. Soon, she has this incredible intriguing hold over him.”
Claflin admits he developed his own ideas about the truth of Rachel, but notes that Michell did not want to discuss them even for a second. “Right from the beginning Roger said ‘I don’t even want to know your theories. I want to leave it to the audience to decide.’ And that’s really what drew me to the film. I’m so excited to hear other people’s thoughts about what really happened. I hope it’s the kind of story where you can get lost within it and leave the theatre asking questions.”
Mystery was one element central to every detail of My Cousin Rachel. Sums up Loader: “My Cousin Rachel is one of du Maurier’s most psychologically sophisticated works. It really taps into all the discomforts of the mind, into our deepest emotions of love and death and their accompanying fears. There had to been an uneasiness beneath the surface throughout the film and that is why it was such great raw material for everyone to work with, both cast and crew.”
Daphne Du Maurier (1907 – 1989)
She was one of the most popular writers of her times, capturing the zeitgeist, but Daphne du Maurier was also ahead of her times, and continues to be a major influence on modern novelists today– her novels show how the most gripping thrillers, no matter how packed with romantic intrigue, natural forces and adventure, can also illuminate our most private emotions, complex relationships and the power of the past.
Like many of her female characters, du Maurier was herself a bold woman who lived on her own terms. She was born in 1907 into an artistic family — the granddaughter of famed caricaturist George du Maurier and the daughter of well-known stage actors George du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont. Raised amongst all manner of creative types, du Maurier’s frequent family visitors while growing up included J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, and novelist and screenwriter Edgar Wallace who wrote KING KONG, helping to further ignite a very eager and daring imagination.
By the time du Maurier was in her teens she was already getting short stories in print. In 1931, she published her debut novel: The Loving Spirit, the story of three generations of love and loss in a Cornwall family under the spell of the sea. This was followed by a string of major literary successes including Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, both of which would become films directed by the rising master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Now a household name and the highest-paid author of the day – male or female — du Maurier continued to enjoy tremendous popularity with her novels Frenchman’s Creek, Hungry Hill, Mary Anne, The Scapegoat, The Glass Blowers, The Flight of the Falcon, The House on the Strand and Rule Britannia.
My Cousin Rachel was her 8th novel and one of her most talked-about, defining the sharp edge of her insight into the hidden human psyche and the complicated lives of smart, strong women for which she is now known for. Though she was often mislabelled as a romance writer, du Maurier’s refusal to come down on one side or the other of Rachel’s guilt or innocence made the book something quite rare in its time – and helped to showcase the nervy modernism and psychological depths of her writing.
Today, du Maurier’s writing is instantly definable to her many fans. Rachel Weisz elaborates: “du Maurier’s stories always have a tightly coiled plot, a thriller-like component, mystery and most especially very strong, interesting women. That’s what makes them still so cinematic.”
Actor Iain Glen observes: “I think it’s brave writing. You could easily pen Rachel’s story so that it would fall clearly on one side or the other. Du Maurier didn’t do that. Instead, like the very best writing, she puts the onus on the audience as to what to think and feel about it.”
Grace Browning, Daphne du Maurier’s grand-daughter hopes that this new screen version will re-introduce the pleasures of du Maurier to some and bring her books to a new generation.
“I think there’s much more depth to her writing than many people initially think. She hated that after Rebecca she was tainted with the romantic novelist moniker. Many of her short stories are incredibly dark — you’d never think they’d been written by her. Her common themes are jealousy, deception, the motivation of people and her characters,” Browning sums up. “They are human themes that are always relevant and I think that’s why people keep reading her work.”